I am trying to work out how to make you read today’s post, so its probably best to simply say read this post because I think if you miss it you could be missing out on a gem of a book. I am sure you are all aware by now how much I love a good sensation novel? You know I love everything about Victoriana? Well Myriad Editions also picked up on this and asked me if I would like to read a debut novel that feels like it has stepped straight out of that era. I couldn’t refuse because it sounded so intriguing, but would it knock my socks off? Well the short answer is yes, for reasons why you will have to read on.
If I said to you that ‘The Clay Dreaming’ was a book about an aboriginal cricket team arriving in London in 1868 it might not sound like the type of book you would instantly rush down to your nearest book shop to grab. Even for someone who is a huge lover of all things Victorian and wants to learn all they can I admit the word ‘cricket’ instantly made me think ‘oh no!’ Oh how one can be proven wrong. The cricket is part and parcel of the story but it’s a back drop and indeed based on fact along with another tale from sixty years earlier which interweave which Ed Hillyer creates an epic Victorian tale from.
When Sarah Larkin goes to see the infamous cricket team ‘the Aboriginal Australian Eleven’ play in the Kent countryside she is unaware that a forgotten mystery is soon going to be the main part of her otherwise dull and difficult life looking after her ailing father with no sign of any income. However days later Brippoki, or King Cole as he is also called, finds her believing she is a guardian who can help him find out about a man he believes to be a relation buried in a unmarked grave. From then on we are taken on a journey (I don’t want to say adventure but it has its thrilling moments) uncovering the past. Of course because of that I can say no more about the plot and shan’t!
The cast of characters with Sarah and Brippoki at the helm is one that will have you reading on and indeed has some Dickensian style characters such as Dilkes Loveless, Lily Perfect and Mrs Luck. This is no pastiche though in fact reading it you could occasionally be mistaken into thinking that this is indeed a book from its time, even possibly a sensation novel as it reads so authentically. The atmosphere and the people almost come straight out of the pages themselves. In fact London itself, through the Regency and Victorian period, is truly the main character at the heart of this book (so if you love books about the London of the past this is perfect for you) almost on occasion to excess.
In fact I would say it was the amount of knowledge and clearly hours of research Hillyer has done that stops this being a ten out of ten book (I would still give it eight out of ten) which is should be. He is clearly passionate about the city and the period and so wants to leave no stone on any cobbled street unturned. London is almost featured too much. For example Brippoki goes ‘walkabout’ regularly throughout London and then so does Sarah on her quest to all parts of city whilst she delves into the past. We are sometimes almost given too much of a good thing. I myself enjoyed it personally but I can imagine the meandering nature of the book, which never hinders but does slightly dilute the plot, could be an issue for some readers. Then again maybe they don’t deserve the reward this book gives in the end.
That’s a small niggle though because in every other way this reads like an author on their fourth or fifth book rather than their debut novel. The prose is masterly, the characters are full drawn – apart from the mysterious ones of course and I could easily imagine this having been published in instalments in the papers/magazines of the late 1800’s. An ideal read for me then! I would love to catch up with Hillyer and have a good old natter about it all, well maybe not the cricket hee, hee!
It’s also the afterword and additional information after the story closes that has a huge impact on the book as you find out the true story it’s based on. It certainly adds an emotional punch and also a sense of further wonderment at Hillyer’s work. He is clearly an author to keep our eyes on. It’s not a book to be read quickly, nor an easy read by any means (ideally it’s one to be read slowly with no great rush and allowed to unfold in front of the readers eyes – perfect for on your holidays) but it is one that I don’t think people should miss out on. 9/10 (I wouldn’t mind this getting a nod on the Man Booker Longlist this year.)
Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners;
The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Faber (possibly one of the best Victorian epics to have not actually been written in the era, characters are wonderful and the tale is fantastic too)
The Secret River by Kate Grenville (a marvellous book set when the ‘mystery storyline’ of this novel is set. Looks at how prisoners from London, and England in general, sent to exile in Australia affected the country, an utter masterpiece in its own right)