Sunday, 2 February 2014

The Quietness, by Alison Rattle: published by Hot Key Books, reviewed by Sue Purkiss

The Quietness centres round two girls, Queenie and Ellen. They year is 1870, and they are both living in London, but other than that they have very little in common, and at the beginning of the book it's not obvious how their lives, one lived in poverty and the other in upper middle-class comfort, can ever intermesh. One longs for quiet: the other has too much of it.

Neither of them is happy. Queenie is sick and tired of the hardships of her life. Her father disappears for a while, leaving her mother to earn some money to keep her children in the only way left to her. When a man comes to their room seeking the mother, and instead seeks to make do with Queenie, it's the final straw, and she decides to leave. She comes across a job with a pair of sisters. They take in babies, it seems, and part of Queenie's job is to help look after the little ones. It's a strangely easy job; the babies never cry and are asleep most of the time - helped by the doctored feed they are given, and by a medicine called The Quietness. From time to time one of the babies disappears - to be taken to a new home in the countryside, so the sisters say. Queenie is happy; she's able to save some money, even to buy herself an unheard of pair of new boots. So when she hears that dead babies have been found, wrapped in brown paper, she works hard to convince herself that they can be nothing to do with the sisters, nothing to do with her...

Meanwhile, not so very far away, Ellen is materially well-cared for, with beautiful dresses and jewels and a comfortable home. Her father is a doctor, but he is strangely cold - her mother even more so. So when a handsome cousin, Jacob, comes to stay, Ellen is only too ready to fall for his sweet words and flattery. But it turns out that he is not what he seems. Ellen falls victim to all of them. In her deepest despair, the only person who is kind to her is Queenie.

We all know from Dickens and others how terrible urban poverty was in Victorian times, and this book paints an unflinching picture of its horrors. The stories of Ellen and Queenie also reveal the hypocrisy of the wealthier classes, and the complete dependence of women from the wealthier classes on their menfolk. Their stories are terrible, and the ending is not an easy one, but the book is passionate and richly-coloured, with two central characters who will not easily be forgotten.


1 comment:

Penny Dolan said...

Sounds a memorable book!

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