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.
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.