Book Review: “Grace Hammer” by Sara Stockbridge

October 9, 2009

Sara Stockbridge’s novel Grace Hammer was my LibraryThing Early Reviewer score this past month. My opinion of it is not entirely consistent with critical acclaim–there does seem to be a sizable group of well-read people who are lauding its Dickensian raciness. It didn’t go quite that direction for me, however. As always, my appreciation to LibraryThing and the participating publishers.

Pickpocketing. Urban filth: cold, grey grimy. Poverty, crime and mortality. Dickens. Rain and horses and fashion. Yep, Victorian London. Sara Stockbridge’s novel recounts all of its requisite stereotypes–emphasizing the east-end, grimmer ones–without adding much to consider. “Grace Hammer” is a sometimes mystery, sometimes crime story, sometimes quasi-historical vignette that, while it has a collection of endearing impressions, doesn’t seem to have much to say.

There’s something about Sara Stockbridge’s treatment of Victorian London that feels vaguely, but jarringly, anachronistic. Although she frames her characters in situations that are at least conceivably plausible, there is a taint of the modern in their actions and motives. Her characters are wont to spew random lists of London localities almost as if in proof that Stockbridge did her geographical homework. There is a lot of boot-strapping and self-education, enough that it strains credulity. Perhaps it is because contemporary novels didn’t tend to have tender scenes of children playing and motherly emotion, but the tone lapsed into an unguarded sentimentality that again betrayed it as more modern than its subjects.

Protagonist Grace Hammer is poor, raised in the country. She runs away in adolescence and becomes an immediately skilled thief and pickpocket, at which point she immediately encounters an evil man who she double-crosses and, well, you can see the direction the plot is going to go: said evil, ugly man (all of the “bad guys” in Stockbridge’s novel are ugly and smelly) will obsessively pursue Grace for the rest of her flighty life.

Stockbridge’s treatment of alcoholism and prostitution has merit, and was obviously executed with some academic care. But there was something so self-conscious in her style that it almost encourages one to seek out mistakes. At one point, she has her characters (Grace and her apparently-perfect young daughter, Daisy) riding a Ferris-Wheel-style amusement ride. The novel is set in 1888, and, as far as I know, the world’s first Ferris Wheel was unveiled at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Finding such faults seems finicky, but the detail of Stockbridge’s historical interjections seem to encourage nitpicking.

Less concrete inaccuracies can be found, too: At one point, it is explained that Grace cannot fathom an honest career, when, after try her hand at being a maid for a couple of weeks, she quit, finding that her “mistress was an imperious bitch who never uttered a please or thank-you.” It is implausible, in 19th Century Britain, to expect such even-handedness out of the gentry–they were not friends with their servants. Behavior was proscribed and rigid; the reality was that there was not a lot of room for cheerful pleases and thank-yous.

In fact, one finds oneself noticing these imperfections in part because the characters are not engrossing. Grace, besides being “plucky” and a self-starter, is not particularly compelling. The antagonists are like monsters from fairy tales: utterly without merit, hideous and noisome. Grace’s daughter Daisy is especially insipid: she is described as beautiful and princess-like, though she does display some courage toward the climax of the story.

The story is a fine one if one is reading for entertainment, and is relatively straightforward and quick. But the somewhat jumpy sentence structure, the show-off historical anecdotes (in particular, the Jack the Ripper side arc that is so ploddingly and begrudgingly executed as to feel infuriating), and the charisma-free characters just don’t take the reader anywhere.

2.0 stars

One Comment

  1. Kathleen says:

    This was one of my requests for LT, though I wasn’t chosen to receive it. Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy it, seems like it had so much potential. A lot of your issues with it sound like ones I’d have too. Good review.

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