Little Bones, by Janette Jenkins, Chatto & Windus, RRP£12.99, 288 pages
Janette Jenkins’s fourth novel is set in 1899 but its parade of colourful grotesques and vibrant street life brings to mind the world of Charles Dickens, who died 30 years earlier. That said, with its scoundrels, cheery urchins, put-upon servants and sharp-eyed landladies, this is not so much an evocation of the real Victorian London as a shorthand version familiar from TV adaptations.
The cruelly named Jane Stretch is a recognisably Dickensian figure, a humble but intelligent crippled girl (although he would not have put her centre stage as Jenkins does). She is clearly the “little bones” of the title, a bowed and stunted creature, but the phrase soon takes on a more sinister inference.
Left destitute by her family, Jane becomes an assistant to a dapper medical man whose clientele is drawn entirely from the female denizens of the music hall. She is our perceptive guide through this dark world of fantasy and illusion; she is more likely to see a performer vomiting in squalid digs than cavorting on stage.
The tale of Jane’s tawdry but fascinating working life is interspersed with chapters detailing her childhood, when she was continually overlooked and underestimated.
Historical novels are just as much about the present as the past, and when Jane abruptly becomes infamous the public’s assumption of her guilt based upon her deformity – a twisted mind in a twisted body – is reminiscent of today’s obsession with physical perfection, and also the extent to which we think we know and can judge people in the public eye.
Jenkins’s characters are morally complex: one person can be weak, kind and unexpectedly ruthless, all at once. Jane herself is a dupe, an angel of mercy or a criminal, according to viewpoint.
Although the writing itself is vivid with bright detail, there is a mismatch between the gaudy historical colouring and a plot that seems to require more realism. Eventually we come to feel deeply for Jane. The situation Jenkins leaves her in at the end of the novel is something else Dickens would not have countenanced.