The Pleasures of Men – Kate Williams

I have dragged my heels about sharing my thoughts about Katie Williams’ debut novel ‘The Pleasures of Men’ and have kept putting it off. I first became aware of the book when it caught my eye in a book shop window. The cover alone suggested this would be a very ‘me’ book; it looked Victorian, gothic and murderous – lovely. The more I found out about it the more I thought I would like it, a neo-Victorian novel written by a historian on the field and with a serial killer. Should have been my perfect read shouldn’t it? Sadly, not so.

Michael Joseph, trade paperback, 2012, fiction, 400 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Catherine Sorgeuil has moved from the delights of Richmond to London’s East End to live with her uncle under some mysterious circumstances. As she does a series of murders by ‘The Man of Crows’ starts occurring in the East End. As the story goes on the murders become more frequent and more bloody thirsty and Catherine starts to believe, while starting to write her own crime novel, that she has some connection to the murderer and may be able to catch him. We also start to learn bit by bit why Catherine is living with her uncle and her own dark past starts to come to light.

Before I go any further I should stipulate that I wanted to absolutely love this book. It had all the elements that would make a ‘cracking read’ for me. Whilst it did have some moments of brilliance I found myself left very cold by it. I pondered initially if it was the fact that because Catherine as a narrator was so mysterious, and Williams slowly showing and telling all Catherine’s secrets, I didn’t really connect with her, and that I do think was part of it. I also couldn’t initially, and was still left a little non plussed at the end, as to why she became so obsessed with ‘The Man of Crows’ apart from it being Williams way of linking the story of a serial killer with a woman in the Victorian times and discussing the society and women’s place in it at the time.

This leads to Kate Williams main strengths. As a historian she knows the Victorian period and so London during that period does live and breathe. She has chosen the darker seedier side of it which is always fascinating and titillating to read, though it’s also rather disturbing as some of the book is incredibly graphic – a small warning should you avoid books like this. There are some brilliant set pieces with theatres and magicians that are wonderfully realised. Yet there are some pieces, such as a visit to a home for foundlings which seem to simply be there for the sake of showing more society issues, it’s all well and good but haven’t we read this before?

Kate Williams has been compared to Sarah Waters, possibly for the aspect of the story which involves lesbianism in the Victorian period. That to me is where the similarities end. Kate Williams can clearly write, and she is an extremely successful biographer, but ‘The Pleasures of Men’ can fall into over writing. I saw the intent was to make the book have a claustrophobic feel and yet the fact chapters started with ‘my hands were cold, as if they had been buried in damp soil’ or ‘that night my mind burnt with plans and I could not sleep’ and ‘I slammed the door of Princess Street as if I had been chased there by demons’ became overkill. Maybe Williams felt that as Catherine starts to write her own book in the book, or notes of deduction, she felt that Catherine must be a wordy narrator, or maybe as a debut novel she was trying to prove something.

Interestingly though, and to make sure this is a fair assessment of my thoughts on the novel, when Kate writes about the victims of ‘The Man of Crows’ the book excels. These are intermittent chapters in each victim’s life before she meets her untimely end and yet in that single chapter Williams wonderfully evokes their circumstances, thoughts and their back story. I wanted more of this.

Whilst I didn’t love ‘The Pleasures of Men’ I liked some of it and I will be interested to see what Kate Williams does next. With her knowledge of the era I wonder if I should read some of her non-fiction and see how I get along with that. In many ways this book has elements of a very unusual neo-Victorian novel, sadly it didn’t quite grip me but that could be because I had over hyped the book in my head and was so excited about it maybe? If you like novels of this genre, or in that era I would say give it a try, lots of people (like Fleur Fisher, whose review tantalised me all the more) have really enjoyed this. I am still in two minds about it, but I did finish it which says something. I still think the cover is utterly stunning.

Phew, there that’s out there, hopefully if a little negative I have backed my feelings up. Who else has read this and what did you think? Which books have you been really excited about and then have fallen flat, and why? Do you think, as readers, we can over hype a book we are excited about in our heads and therefore almost ruin the experience for ourselves a little? As ever I am interested in your thoughts on all the above questions.

12 Comments

Filed under Kate Williams, Michael Joseph Publishing, Penguin Books, Review

12 responses to “The Pleasures of Men – Kate Williams

  1. Louise

    I didn’t finish this, for exactly the same reasons as you. I have this thing now, that if I’m not enjoying a book, I won’t force myself to read it and it goes on the DNF pile. I did get over half way through and I thought I’d punished myself enough.

    I do LOVE the cover and I really, really wanted to love this book.

  2. David

    I read the first few pages of this in WHSmith a couple of weeks ago and decided it wasn’t really for me – although there are exceptions I can’t say I’m particularly a fan of the faux-Victorian novel, especially ones set in London (oddly I’m quite happy with ones set in more rural areas during the period). So I shall be giving this one a miss I think. I’m not sure about that cover myself – the fab lettering (wonder who did it?) looks contemporary/literary, but the cover photo looks like it’s trying to appeal to readers of Twilight and its ilk. Nice colours though.

    As for disappointing books, I read one just last month. I absolutely loved Gillian Slovo’s “The Ice Road” when I read it a few years ago, and though I never got around to “Black Orchids” (at the time it sounded too similar to a Roma Tearne I’d just read), I was very much looking forward to “An Honourable Man” (yes, it is partly set in Victorian London, but mainly it’s set in Sudan and has camels and treks across the desert and a mad British General – just my kind of thing) but I was massively disappointed. Very readable, but it’s a straightforward historical without much depth or nuance, bland and underdeveloped characters, tacked on “issues”, and no sense of place – she tells you a lot about the heat of the desert, but I never felt it and she made it seem so small which is probably a feat in itself! But it seems to have been getting some decent reviews in the press so I think maybe either I missed something or had built it up too much in my head beforehand. Ho-hum.
    The reverse of this of course is those novels we have no expectations of whatsoever (and may not even fancy that much) but are completely surprised by. I just finished reading Darran McCann’s “After the Lockout” which was definitely one of those – I tend to avoid novels that feature Irish history too heavily as it’s something I’m sadly rather ignorant of and it seems such a huge and difficult subject to try and approach. And I did have to put McCann’s novel down after a couple of pages and go and read a couple of Wikipedia entries for some background, but being armed with that I was completely drawn into the story and found it really good. Powerful stuff.

    • Isn’t it funny how we react to certain books isn’t it. This book had all the sign posts of being a very me read and it just didnt happen. Which then makes me cross with me. Its interesting you mention authors you loved a book by and then the same happens, its the disappointment I think. That mixed with time = bitter reader… ha, not really that bitter actually, just narked.

      I think I need to think less about books I am excited about and maybe let the hype and enthusiasm die down before I pick them up. I also need to remind myself that not all books will be books that I love, or even like a lot.

  3. I love the cover too. Very vibrant colours. It is always so disappointing when you think you will love a particular book only to find later that you don’t. The premis of it sounds like something I too might like – but maybe not now I have read your review. Thanks.

    • Oh no, dont be put off. I would be interested to see more peoples thoughts on this, and I have seen some reviews that glowed about this. I would never want to put someone off, maybe just suggest its more a library book rather than a rush out and buy?

  4. I have it on my wish list, I was thinking of reading the translation into Romanian, but now I’m having second thoughts… and the cover is not as intriguing as this one 🙂

  5. It’s got to be something of a curse for any author to be linked to a master of a certain genre on their debut novel. I can’t imagine anyone matching up to the high bar set by Sarah Waters for both neo-Victorian and lesbian fiction. This happened for me recently with The Lantern, where the comparison to le Du Maurier on the cover actually led me to like the book less because it couldn’t possibly stand up to that comparison. I think publishers and critics should be more careful with these sorts of pronouncements.

    As for this book, I probably would have wanted to pick it up but am glad that you called out the graphicness of parts because, as you may remember from a previous group read (Skin Lane), I have rather a weak stomach!

    • It’s not horrendously graphic, but there are some moments I have to say Kristen. That said I don’t think you should let that put you off if you do choose to read this book, just be prepared. Forewarned is forarmed after all!

      I didn’t read The Lantern for that exact reason, I was sent it by the publishers as they thought as I loved Rebecca I would love it, alas I didn’t.

  6. FleurFisher

    I have a weakness for melodrama and loose ends that I can ponder after reading, so I can understand why I liked this more than mostyou, and indeed more than most!

    • I don’t mind either of those things either. I think it was just the fact I had no connection with the main character and no real reasoning behind her fascination even after the ending. Some small moments of genius surrounded by two stories possibly better written apart in full is my more fermented thoughts.

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