Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. The column covers fiction and non-fiction with reviews by Klara (The Stranger Adventures of H) and Lauren (The Five).
The Strange Adventures of H by Sarah Burton
Published by Legend Press, June 2020
A little over a month ago, I came across this little gem of a book on Netgalley and requested a copy immediately after reading the book’s description. So, a special thanks to both Netgalley and the publisher, Legend Press, for providing me with a copy of this book for review.
The Strange Adventures of H is Sarah Burton’s debut novel for adults, and she comes into the historical fiction realm on a strong note. Young H is orphaned very early on, following the death of her cold and unlikeable father, and is sent away with to live with her beloved Aunt Madge in the city, along with her favourite sister, Evelyn. Following a fair share of hardships, H finds some happiness again in her new home, but it doesn’t last, and she suffers a cruel loss of her innocence at the hands of someone she trusted.
As if H hadn’t suffered enough, along comes the 1665 Great Plague of London, and people start dropping like flies all around her. H’s safety net falls out from under her once again, and she finds herself alone, and the tough times keep on coming. An unexpected pregnancy puts H in a difficult predicament, and so she seeks to survive any way she can. All is not as it seems once she finds a new normal; a betrayal from an unlikely source becomes a great catalyst of change in H’s life.
Burton takes us on a whirlwind of a journey in this novel. We began with a young orphaned H and witness her hardships and enjoy her fleeting moments of happiness. We root for her to thrive and rebuild her life, so that she may acquire the independence and the life of freedom she has long craved.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Strange Adventures of H; Burton’s historical expertise really shines through. The historical accuracy throughout the novel truly enhanced the reading experience of this book and helped to pull you into the pages to experience H’s world. You get to witness H go from a keen-to-please orphan to an independent woman who has overcome adversity at great lengths, who finds love in unlikely places and newfound happiness, even after all the chaos. H is a survivor and a wonderful protagonist, this book most definitely lives up to its namesake. It is a strange tale, but it is a great and hopeful one.
The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold
Published by Transworld Publishers, February 2019
Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five is such an underrated piece of feminist non-fiction.
It takes the well-known history of Jack the Ripper and looks at it from a fresh perspective. Instead of retelling the traditional narrative, and instead of basking in this voyeuristic pleasure of women’s mutilated bodies, Rubenhold uncovers the stories of these women. They are no longer victims but real women.
Rubenhold is not interested in discovering the identity of Jack the Ripper, who has escaped us since 1888, nor is she interested in depicting the exact defacing of these women. It is about these women having a space to tell their story. I am not sure why society is so consumed with murder. Since the Victorian period, when this happened, there has been a mass interest in the act of killing. We are fascinated by the intents and motives behind the act, and we take a voyeuristic pleasure in seeing a dead body. We always want to know the gruesome facts.
The Five takes a much different approach to this. Rubenhold wants these women to be remembered as women, not victims. There is no mention of how they died, simply how they came to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their names were Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. They were ordinary women who all came to Whitechapel, London, for one reason or another.
It questions a lot about how we perceive women as victims and how we immortalise a misogynistic murderer. We remember Jack the Ripper’s name, and how he famously killed, but we forget the women. Rubenhold tackles the notion that these women were prostitutes. Throughout time, we have vilified women who sell their bodies, as if paying for sex is a dirty act. Does this mean they deserved to be murdered? The Five argues that the professions of at least three women were unknown. It is just easier to label them this, as it prevents a full-scale investigation. Society is just as much to blame as Jack the Ripper; they do not care for their poor or their women.
The Five was an intense and addictive read. Hardly anything is known about these women, so, at times, Rubenhold is left to guess or assume. Still, her passion for giving these women a voice was undeniable in the harrowing prose and sheer research she undertook. It is everything that non-fiction is missing, especially when it concerns crime against women.