These Shallow Graves – Jennifer Donnelly

25806894I still have to review The Big Lie (which was excellent) and Asking for It (which was truly unsettling, but highly recommended) but when I was on GoodReads today, I was getting big banner ads for These Shallow Graves, and, basically, I’m procrastinating on amendments to my thesis draft, so I thought I might as well write a review. These Shallow Graves was sent to me by Hot Key Books, and I am, as ever, incredibly thankful for the chance to read and review their (consistently excellent) offerings.

These Shallow Graves is a brick of a book – a beautiful, haunting cover, a massive weight to carry around in my bag and, quite honestly, a joy to read. I know I’ve mentioned earlier in the year that I wasn’t a hundred percent sold on historical fiction, but I think this has tipped me over into it – Victorian New York, pickpockets, high society, constricting gender roles, societal expectations, corsets – this book was full of things which ticked a lot of boxes I didn’t even know I had, but it did so with a zeal and pacing which left me immensely satisfied by the time I turned that final page.

These Shallow Graves – Jennifer Donnelly

A wealthy family. A deadly secret. A young woman with more to lose than she knows.

Josephine Montfort is from one of New York’s oldest, most respected, and wealthiest families. Like most well-off girls of the Gilded Age, her future looks set – after a finishing school education, she will be favourably married off to a handsome gentleman, after which she’ll want for nothing. But Jo has other dreams and desires that make her long for a very different kind of future. She wants a more meaningful and exciting life: she wants to be an investigative journalist like her heroine Nellie Bly.

But when Jo’s father is found dead in his study after an alleged accident, her life becomes far more exciting than even Jo would wish. Unable to accept that her father could have been so careless, she begins to investigate his death with the help of a young reporter, Eddie Gallagher. It quickly becomes clear he was murdered, and in their race against time to discover the culprit and his motive, Jo and Eddie find themselves not only battling dark characters on the violent and gritty streets of New York, but also their growing feelings for each other

Josephine Montfort, Jo (or sometimes Josie), our heroine, starts out the book being painted as something of a rebel within her tightly-constrained aristocratic world – unwilling to just sit back and breed aristocratic children for the perpetuation of her family name. Rather, she’s more interested in getting out and learning about the issues facing her world, the city she lives in, and emulating her heroine, Nellie Bly. A side note – I didn’t realise through the book that Nellie Bly was an actual journalist and the asylum exposé referenced in the book was an actual published piece, a fact which just makes this book cooler, as far as I’m concerned.

A LOT happens in These Shallow Graves – Jo is torn between investigating the death of her father and conforming to societal expectations of her, with all the mourning, dances, engagements, and social niceties which attend her position as part of the upper-class élite of Victorian New York. I thoroughly enjoyed both sides of Jo’s story, as well as her own irritation at the restrictive roles she is forced to play simply by nature of her gender. Several times in the book Jo is frustrated by how restricted she is, simply because she is a woman, and I heartily agreed with her internal monologue, and found it refreshing to read.

There is a love triangle – of sorts – in this book. It had the potential to be heart-rendingly sad, or saccharine in its happily ever after, but I was actually really pleased with how it panned out.
This book must have been meticulously plotted. Background characters were fleshed out and nuances which had been gently woven into the book came together at the end not with a bow on top, but with a sort of gentle satisfaction which went ‘ah, of course!’ and clues peppered throughout the book also left me with a feeling of being a successful investigative journalist as I pieced together clues along with Jo and Eddie. That said, though, I had one character pegged from very, very early on, and was frustrated throughout the whole book as Jo and Eddie were phenomenally slow to catch on.

I read this book with Garth Nix’s Regency Romance Newt’s Emerald in my head, because I bought a hard copy of it the same day I started reading These Shallow Graves, and I was able to draw a lot of parallels between them – the feisty main character fighting to get things done despite the social restrictions which are entangled around her due to her position. There were, naturally, lots of differences, too, but drawing comparisons to my favourite author can never be a bad thing, I would think.

I hugely enjoyed this book – it’s at once a historical fiction piece and a searing commentary on feminism, a portrait of family love and loyalty, the need to do the right thing, a depiction of the massive gap between classes in New York, and a rollicking adventure which grabs you and drags you deep into the seedy underbelly of crime in a seemingly upright and flawless family company.

Heartily recommended, I give These Shallow Graves
Four Stars
****

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