Years ago, I read Keturah and Lord Death and couldn't shake it from my head. A heroine who falls in love with Death and a historical setting at once enigmatic and refined. I loved the voice of the novel, the narrative scope and the saucy way of inching out mysterious details with aplomb. Martine Leavitt had me from page one.
It’s been a long while since I read a Teen novel that packed as much of a punch as Keturah. That is until I was checking around Netgalley for something to read and stumbled upon The Hangman in the Mirror by Torontonian Kate Cayley. Honestly, I had never heard of this title before and the cover left a lot to be desired; but the setting (1750s New France) immediately captured my eye. As did the small kernel at the back of my brain that brought the synopsis to remembered forefront. You see, Cayley scripted a novel based on a plot that inspired a popular poem by Margaret Atwood.
With this delicious synopsis, I set in and finished the book which I started over lunch break, last night in the warmth of my apartment while the fog settled outside.
Readers, I LOVED this book. I loved the atmospheric feel and tangible scents of the Montreal streets. I loved Francoise, our narrator, the daughter of a drunken washerwoman and her retired soldier husband, who yearns for something of her own.
I loved the gritty exposition of life for those who were so dedicated to the New World: finding crass judgement by popular hanging spectacles and obliterating the term ‘peasant’ even though many of lower stations were still begging for stale crusts of bread on the dirty street. I loved the attention to the smallpox epidemic and to the tragedy of stillborn children, especially felt in upper class families. Mostly, I loved the author’s close attention to the power of oral history.
My elementary school teacher used to spend Fridays before holidays dimming the classroom lights and treating us to a few well-spun tales of the voyageurs and the metaphysical: both wrapped in the stuff that creeps across you with a chill and spins you back to the world when Canada was first becoming a nation: amidst the canoes and the firs and the harsh sweat of the voyageur’s brows. Here, Cayley threads stories of this ilk while positioning her heroine in the line of her mother’s oral fire. Her mother remembers France and tells of the gritty Paris streets, the song and the dance and the opera.
Indeed, there is a major motif stemming each page which conflicts the idea of lies with the reasoning of oral truth. Francoise tells many haunting tales: at first to her friends, later to her mistress as she moves into a fine estate as a lady’s maid. In each instance, her audience listens with rapt attention; but calls her bluff. Francoise, however, cannot believe that these stories are lies; rather half-truths; rather beautiful tales that captivate. It is this Scheherazadean gift which will eventually save her life in a unique, compelling and thoroughly suspenseful way.
It is the power of story which leads us through this theatrical narration. For, indeed, it is a very theatrical book: attention is made to set, to perfectly-crafted dialogue, to action, to the beautiful curtain at the end of the beautiful story, leaving the reader/ audience breathless with the power of a simple climactic sentence.
I absolutely ADORED this novel.
I hope you seek it out.
I received this book on approval from Annick Press through Netgalley.