5 September 2019

Little by Edward Carey

A few months ago a book truck appeared in the staff room at the library with a sign that read 'Help yourself''.  Most of the titles were YA fiction with a spattering of Fantasy, but then I noticed an uncorrected proof copy of Little.  I've never read anything by Carey before but I remembered reading some favourable comments when it was published in 2018.  But does praise count for much if you're not all that bothered about the subject matter?  My personal opinion of Madame Tussaud's waxworks was that they're creepy places filled with spectacles and best avoided.  This book, on the other hand, held my interest from the first page.

'Anne Marie Grosholtz was the name given to that hurriedly christened child, though I would be referred to simply as Marie.  I was not much bigger, at first, than the size of my mother's little hands put together, and I was not expected to live very long.'

Marie was born in France in 1761, an era rife with pitfalls for children.  With her father's hawkish nose and her mother's prominent chin, village women commented that finding a husband wouldn't be easy.  At the age of six, her father is wounded by an ill-repaired cannon backfiring during a parade.  Taking the blast in his face results in the loss of his lower jaw and a decline that leads to his early death.  With no money, Marie's mother relies on connections made with a doctor.  A situation is found and the pair set off on a horse cart  to the home of Doctor Curtius.  Cautiously hopeful that once in a big city mother and daughter would find security, they arrive in Berne to find gloomy rising buildings, narrow and unlit streets.

Doctor Curtius is a tall, slim man with with moist eyes and greasy hair.  His home is spare and full of shadows, a few candles illuminate what looks like body parts on a table nearby.  For Marie's mother, whose mental health has been dangerously eroded, it's all too much.  But the little girl is curious about the figures she now realizes are merely wax models and delights Doctor Curtius by sleeping under his work table at night.  The two become mentor and protege.

Surgeon Hoffman is not at all pleased with Doctor Curtius's hobby of making wax heads and puts pressure on him to continue molding diseased features instead.  Threats are made.  With new light cast on a future doing something he enjoys, Curtius plans his escape with Marie to Paris.  A gentleman called Mercier supplies the name of a woman, recently widowed, who will put them up.

  'Somewhere toward the shrunken middle of the Rue du Petit Moine in the Faubourg San-Marcel was a grim house with a word painted on buckled boards suspended from rusting wires.  The word of this house was TAILLEUR.  In all the windows greasy black material hung; all was parceled up in darkness.  Here a tailor had died.  Mercier reached for the door.  As he pushed it open a bell attached to it sounded twice, a loud noise in all that hush.  It was a sad sound, two dolorous clangs, that seemed to say, That Hurts.'

From the moment Doctor Curtius and the eight year-old Marie cross the threshold of the Widow Picot's house the backdrop becomes slightly macabre.  The widow wallows in her grief, bullies anyone she deems beneath her and rules with an iron fist.   Her son Edmond prefers to keep to himself and out of her way.  Little Marie is send directly to the kitchen as an unpaid servant, something Marie vehemently rails against on a regular basis.  A feral hulking boy named Jacques, with a fondness for tales of murderous crimes begins to sleep on the doorstep.

From the beginning, one of Marie's greatest strengths is her powers of observation and dogged determination.  She bides her time, knowing when to keep quiet and when to demand.  There are also small acts of defiance that rile the widow, the greatest one being a growing friendship with Edmond.

By the time Marie is seventeen a growing number of curiousity seekers come to the house.  One day it's Princess Elisabeth, the younger sister of King Louis XVI, who comes to see the wax figures.  The teenagers bear a resemblance which sparks conversation and an eventual invitation for Marie to become Princess Elisabeth's art tutor at the Palace of Versailles.  You don't have to be a history buff to know of the misery that lies ahead for the King, his Queen and scores of citizens.  Marie bears witness to all of it.

Little was an unexpected fabulous read that would have passed me by if not for a chance offer in the staff room.  The horrors of the guillotine blended with Marie's incredible resourcefulness make this an excellent choice for an atmospheric October read.  And I would be remiss in not mentioning the  added treat of sketches throughout the book by the author.  Find a copy!

Edward Carey's portrait of Marie Tussaud

No comments:

Post a Comment