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Kept: A Victorian Mystery Hardcover – May 8, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This richly textured tour de force from British author Taylor (The Comedy Man) centers on the abduction of disturbed heiress Isabel Ireland, whose husband, Henry, died in a fall from his horse (or a blow to the head) near their estate in Suffolk. Through intriguing letters, diaries and compelling narratives by characters from all levels of 1860s English society, Taylor follows Isabel's determined cousins to remote Easton Hall, where she's being kept by sinister James Dixey, a purported naturalist with initially murky motives. Dixey's henchmen destroy eggs of endangered bird species and maintain vicious dogs that distress his servants, especially precocious Esther Spalding, an endearing young maid who cares for Isabel in the manor's lonely west wing. In squalid, crime-ridden London, police captain McTurk shrewdly links a shady debt collection service and dramatic train robbery to Isabel's abduction. The many facets of this absorbing, multilayered tale come together in an understated but fulfilling resolution. (May)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
A talented and versatile writer, author of The Comedy Man (2001) and a biography of George Orwell (2003), Taylor presents a literary Victorian mystery that combines a Dickensian cast of characters with the dark foreboding of Poe. In a story ostensibly about a madwoman whose husband, Henry Ireland, dies in questionable circumstances, finding the killer is ancillary to a journey into the human psyche. Mr. Dixey, a naturalist whose country manse contains rare specimens of stuffed and live wildlife, also houses Henry's distraught widow: her precarious sanity is secure in protective isolation. Dixey's shady proclivities lead him to a con man whose opportunism makes financial captives of people of all classes. The novel's deliciously drawn-out pacing mirrors Victorian literature, as does the wonderfully descriptive language ("skeins of birds," "mournful in the gloaming") and sophisticated vocabulary ("encomia pronounced over his catafalque"). A refreshing lack of unbelievable coincidences reflects a more modern style: each person's story realistically demonstrates the author's conclusions about the things we collect and the people we cannot. Book groups will enjoy this one. Jennifer Baker
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
Of course, this Victorian voice does make his book a bit of a challenge for modern readers. Two oddities about the novel add to the difficulties.
1. The story has no protagonist. The title refers to an attractive widow who is being held against her will in a spooky country home belonging to to man whose main interests are collecting bird eggs and raising vicious dogs. This man, James Dixey, eventually falls in love with his prisoner, Isabel Ireland. Yet neither of these characters, nor anyone other character in the novel, can really be called the main character. There is no main character. The plot shifts from scene to scene, from character to character, making it difficult for readers to find a high point from which to view the whole story.
2. Most fiction is told either from an omniscient, third-person point of view or from a limited first-person point of view. In other words, the narrator either knows everything or only what one particular character in the story happens to know. In "Kept," Taylor strangely employs both points of view at the same time. Phrases like "it seems to me" and "I think" abound throughout the novel, suggesting that the story is being told by some close observer of events. Yet a few sentences later this narrator is revealing characters' thought and private actions, things only an omniscient narrator could know. It's a bit bothersome not knowing who this first-person narrator is or how he happens to know so much about a story that involves so many different locales and so many different characters.
Despite these difficulties and these oddities, I found "Kept" to be enjoyable reading.
There's a lot going on here, a number of interwoven stories that the narrative switches among. It's not a straightforward "mystery" (oddly, my edition, not identical to the one listed here, doesn't include the "A Victorian Mystery" subtitle). There is mystery, as there is in "Bleak House" or "Our Mutual Friend", but as there the resolution of the mystery is only a part of the whole. Although all comes together at last, the journey is more than the destination. I've seen reviews here calling this the worst book the reader has every read (though unfortunately without elaboration on why). My only guess would be the journey thing. If you enjoy a book where you can pick it up and start reading at any page and enjoy it for the joy of the language, this book may be for you. I hope so, because it gave me a lot of pleasure.