"To be blunt, I must escape".
This is our introduction to Henry, the ‘heroine’ of Nat Reeve’s startlingly good debut novel. Henry feels she can’t be constrained by the expectations of her family. Her story is about love and diversity and being able to choose your own identity.
Henry Nettleblack has just learned that her elder sister, Edwina, plans to send her off for a month-long pheasant shoot, to meet the man Edwina plans for her to marry. The Nettleblacks are the wealthiest family in town, but their money came from trade. It was their dead father’s wish that at least one of his daughters marry into the nobility. Edwina has decided it will be Henry who achieves this. For the sheltered, socially awkward and perpetually anxious Henry, this is the worst fate imaginable. So she makes a rash decision to run away from home. She sets off with ambitions of escaping to London, sure that there must be a train station somewhere in the town. But Henry hasn’t lived in this town of Dallyangle for long. She was raised in Wales, then sent by Edwina to study at Girton, for her social advancement. Edwina only lets her leave the house to attend church, and for that she is driven in a carriage, so it seems like her chances of escape are slim.
Henry never makes it the station. She gets lost only a few streets from home and strays into a dark alley where she is ambushed by two sinister characters and robbed. She is saved by Septimus, a member of the mostly female Dallyangle Division, an organisation that is part-amateur police force and part-neighbourhood watch. Desperately needing somewhere to hide from her sister, Henry rashly joins the Dallyangle Division then spends the rest of book trying to work out what she is actually doing and why. And she also has to work out what these strange feelings she has for her new co-worker, Septimus, are.
Far from being a safe hiding place, Henry needs to constantly guard herself within the Division, especially when Edwina engages them to find and return her missing sister before any hint of scandal leaks out. Fortunately for Henry, the Division doesn’t really have time to focus on that little mystery, as they also need to track down the miscreants who are ambushing people all over town, and solve the mystery of a head which suddenly turns up on stage in the middle of a production of the Pirates of Penzance.
This book is billed, in part, as a mystery, but really the only mystery is when will the characters work out what the hell is going on in their town. Rather it’s more about celebrating love in all its queer forms. I think a pivotal moment for Henry is when she meets Pip Property for the first time. Previously, she had noted that Septimus always referred to Property as ‘they’, not ‘him’ or ‘her’, and didn’t understand what she meant by this. But then she meets Property herself and instantly understands why Septimus does this, and wonders if she would be allowed to do the same. She very quickly has her answer when Property says to her, “Well. You may think me fanciful in the extreme, but I confess I rather prefer it when my interlocutors don’t resolve too firmly on either he or she. Can you stagger in sweet Shakespeare’s footsteps and manage they?" It’s a revelation to Henry that people can make choices like this about themselves.
This is a beautifully chaotic book told through journal entries and the occasional letter. It’s also incredibly fast paced, with all of the action taking place over only a few days. I took an inexcusably long time to actually read it, but that is mainly due to the tiny print used in my edition and the sheer density of words on many, many pages. After a long day staring at computer screens, there were many evenings when my eyes just couldn’t decipher the words on the page. I actually looked to see if I could download an eBook version, but that doesn’t seem to be available yet. But the times when I could read it were pure joy. I’m actually sorry to have finally finished the last page and to leave the mad world of the Division, but I’m happy to see from Nat Reeve’s biography that a sequel will out next year. Definitely recommended.