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Book reviews: Things In Jars — A freaky blinder

Macabre: Things In Jars has a ghoulish air to it PICTURE: GETTY

Things in Jars

by Jess Kidd (Canongate) ★★★★✩

JESS KIDD plunges readers into worlds that don’t seem to exist in other novels. She’s visited a west Irish village populated by the dead in Himself and the London house of a reclusive collector, crammed to the rafters with ghosts and ghoulish Victoriana, in The Hoarder.

Now, in her third novel, she makes the transgressive psyche of London itself her subject in an off-kilter, 19th-century-set thriller in which Bridie Devine, detective extraordinaire, who specialises in reading dead bodies to determine the nature of their death, is on the hunt for a mute child, Christabel, who has vanished from a locked nursery inside the house of a baronet.

Myths: Jess Kidd

Fans of Kidd will recognise her cartwheeling mix of the macabre and Irish myth, combined with a matter-of-fact embrace of the supernatural — manifested here by the ghost of a boxer who accompanies Bridie. Similarly, Christabel is a beguilingly ambiguous creation, a much-abused child of changing appearance who is rumoured to eat snails and kill people by telekinesis, and who has been trafficked because of her freak-show appeal.

Add a marine-obsessed baronet who collects specimens of mutilated infants, a sociopathic boy from Bridie’s youth with a hunger for violating women, a 7ft-tall Irish maid and a weather phenomenon that has caused London to flood, and you might feel that Kidd’s fantastical imagination operates exclusively in the realm of magic realism.

Yet in this typically unorthodox detective novel, in which almost every sentence leaps with simile and poetic vigour, Kidd has focused her use of the uncanny to point up the abnormalities of human behaviour, its love for voyeurism and its capacity for unfathomable cruelty and violence. A nasty novel, in the nicest possible sense.

The verdict

A detective novel set against a Victorian London obsessed with the grotesque and the dark arts of science

Three more gothic yarns out now

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield (Transworld)

Latest from the author of The Thirteenth Tale about a mute child who washes up from the Thames, prompting various members of a 19th-century Oxfordshire village to claim her as their own.

The Familiars by Stacey Halls (Bonnier Zaffre)

Inspired by the Pendle Hill witch trials, this debut about a noblewoman sucked into witchcraft hysteria is a serious historical novel about the persecution of so-called transgressive women, laced with magic.

The Dollmaker by Nina Allan (Riverrun)

Third novel from Allan, about a fastidious antique doll maker who begins a correspondence with a woman who has lived since childhood in an institution on Bodmin Moor, and hatches a plan to save her.

Spring

by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton) ★★★★✩

The latest in a planned quartet written to capture the mood of Brexit Britain, this follows a grieving film director on a road trip around the Highlands with a woman who works at a migrant detention centre and a 12-year-old girl whose mother is held in one. Fans may enjoy some Ali Smith bingo as she bounces pun-tastically around this unlikely bunch. Yet Spring is a tub-thumping novel about Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment’ that ignores protest fiction’s gritty realism in favour of gloriously off-the-chain storytelling filled with light and play. (ANTHONY CUMMINS)

Cemetery Road

by Greg Iles (HarperCollins) ★★★★✩

Greg Iles’s Natchez Burning trilogy marked an astonishing return after a car crash nearly killed him in 2011. This standalone novel centres on Marshall McEwan, a journalist returned from Washington to run his family’s newspaper in Bienville, Mississippi. He’s also back to look after his ill estranged father. Yet in the first chapter, his surrogate father is murdered. There are also flashbacks to the deaths of McEwan’s teenage brother and infant son. Sunny it ain’t but the humane writing and urgent narrative soon take over and you’re with McEwan every step as he seeks out his surrogate father’s killer. (PAUL CONNOLLY)