Book Review: Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper


fallen grace mary hooper Book Review: Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper

If theres a topic that can never be exhausted in literature, its death. The cult of death is something evident in so many aspects of daily life, and its shadow necessarily haunts us. In her novel Fallen Grace young adult author Mary Hooper touches on the topic in myriad and complex ways, exploiting her morbid Victorian London setting to its fullest extent in doing so. And the result is nothing short of a masterpiece.

On Grace Parkess mantelpiece is an artisan tea set, the type that would fetch a heart-pounding price at auction. But its all that Grace and her perpetually bewildered sister Lily have by which to remember their motherand in fact is just about the only possession they have between them. For while Grace and Lily have memories of a home with a white picket fence, fresh bread, and the warming smile of their mother, their present situation has rather less in the way of rose-coloured glasses. Grace and Lily, now orphans, reside in a decrepit building in the slummy Seven Dials, and spend their days selling wilted bouquets of watercress to whomever will take pity on them. Unfortunately, the number of such pitying souls is few, and despite their best efforts Grace and Lily find themselves falling into increasingly dire straits.

But Grace has an eerie ace up her sleeve. Some few months ago she found herself a passenger on the Necropolis train, seeking Christian solace on behalf of the small bundle she held in her arms. Believing this bundle to be her stillborn infant, Grace slipped it into the coffin of a recently deceased philanthropist, whose funeral she then attended. For Grace the funeral was one of odd serendipity, as there she happened across two individuals with the power to change her life entirely: the callous, priggish Mrs Unwin, matriarch of a family of funeral directors motivated solely by financial gain, and the young lawyer James Solent, a kind-hearted chap with a charitable soul on par with his deceased sisters.

Needless to say, in 18th century London Graces historydespite it being no fault of her ownseverely limits the avenues available to her, and given her position of responsibility as her simple-minded sisters carer she is facing a challenge of inordinate proportions. Thus, Grace finds herself seeking employ at the threshold of the Unwins, who offer her a role as a funeral mute, where she is to augment the sorrows of mourning families by standing by the graces or coffins of their loved ones. Its a highly symbolic role: Grace has been forced into silence throughout the book due to the actions of othersspeaking out about the injustices perpetuated against her is of course anathemabut now she goes about her days in complete silence, something which becomes all the more challenging when she finds herself facing the man who has ruined her life.

The notion of subjective, pick-and-choose morality and ethics is touched upon throughout the novel, too, making it at times a challenging readalthough Hooper carefully dilutes its force by drawing on Dickensian archetypes and Victorian-era narrative devices (as an aside, keep an eye out for a fabulous cameo from Charles himself). The Unwins, for example, are taken to a villainous extreme in their eagerness to exploit not only the emotions of others, but the normative requirements of society in terms of loss, death, and mourning, and Im sure that theres some goatee-stroking 'going on behind the scenes. Even the very name Unwin means enemya stark contrast to the emotion embodied in Graces name, or the implications of Lilys. Its delicious, clever stuff, and Hoopers ability to call on these tropes makes the novel all the more effective.

The divisions of class and the painfully fixed hierarchy of the same are all too evident, and Hooper explores this by first shutting down and then opening up the possibilities available to Grace. The possibility of even speaking to someone above her station is beyond her, and she fixates incessantly on ways to maintain her self-concepther shoes, for example, are key to her as a symbol of her worth as an individual. This is particularly important to her given the harrowing circumstances behind her pregnancy. And the importance of acting in a way appropriate to ones station is emphasised time and time again by the Unwins nefarious efforts to guilt their clients into purchasing a (surprisingly extensive) host of mourning accoutrements.'But things suddenly change when she learns the truth about her background and the fortune this might usher in for her, and we see that ones perception of self has much to do with what one can reasonably achieve.

Death, of course, is a major theme of the novel, but is worked in in both literal and figurative senses. Every character is touched by death or loss in some way, and often in myriad wayssomething highlighted by the complex traditions and customs surrounding its occurrence. Grace has lost her parents, her child, her innocence and to a degree her sister Lily, from whose presence she is eventually removed. Death becomes the great equaliser: though the wealthy alone can celebrate (?) it in style, its a event that doesnt discriminate based on class, as we see when none other than Prince Albert dies and the nation is sent into mourningensuring that everyone, despite their status, is engaged in the same activity.

Fallen Grace draws merrily (and at times gloomily) on the much-loved elements of the Victorian-era novel, and older readers will find themselves nodding along in solidarity as those well-versed tropes are trotted out: coincidences galore, diametrically opposed characters with clear hero and villain roles, the rags to riches orphan, and the dank, vile backdrop underpinned by incessant moody misery.'Younger readers may not notice that this book treads in the wake of myriad literary greats, but Id bet my last pair of shoes that theyll delight in Hoopers latest: its an eminently readable novel with exquisite depth, pitch-perfect characterisation, and rich, lush prose. An absolute must read.

Rating: ?????

With thanks to Bloomsbury Australia for the review copy

Purchase Fallen Grace from Amazon | Book Depository UK | Book Depository USA

Other books by Mary Hooper:

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