Bottom Line: Having spent most of the novel fairly disgusted at the lack of answers and the very confusing narrator shifts, the novel’s resolution is actually a brilliant sleight of hand that I could only appreciate upon reflection. It is definitely a thinking person’s thriller.
“July 1840: The young Queen Victoria has just entered her third year on the throne when a major recession brings London’s desperate and destitute into its sweltering streets. While the city crackles with tension, orphaned Catherine Sorgeiul stays locked away in her uncle’s home, a peculiar place where death masks adorn the walls and certain rooms are strictly forbidden. Nineteen years old and haunted by a dark past, Catherine becomes obsessed with a series of terrible murders of young girls sweeping the city. Details of the crimes are especially gruesome–the victims’ hair has been newly plaited and thrust into their mouths, and their limbs are grotesquely folded behind them, like wounded birds–and the serial killer is soon nicknamed the Man of Crows.Catherine begins writing stories about the victims–women on their own and vulnerable in the big city–and gradually the story of the murderer as well. But she soon realizes that she has involved herself in a web of betrayal, deceit, and terror that threatens her and all those around her.”
Thoughts: Kate Williams’ debut novel, The Pleasures of Men, is more than a murder mystery. While a serial killer preying on young girls in a downtrodden part of London is a key figure in the novel, it is as much about Catherine’s search for happiness, or at least a sense of acceptance, in a society that is ultimately distasteful and foreign to her. Catherine’s initial impressions are not always what they seem. As such, a reader is then left to ferret out the clues and answers among the myriad of misdirection. It is a creative spin on a familiar story, and one that gives readers a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment for sticking it out until the end.
Catherine is quite the narrator. Her past is tumultuous, but a reader does not get a clear understanding of her history until well into the later stages of the novel. In the meantime, one is left wondering how reliable she really is. She freely admits that she is losing track of time and her belongings, and her writings about the Man of Crows become part of the story in their own right – further blurring the line between Catherine’s imaginings and the truth. Between her self-isolation, definite anti-social stance, and her mind’s wanderings, a reader must also determine if she is a sympathetic character. It is enough to leave a reader feeling decidedly off-kilter through much of the novel.
The Pleasures of Men is not designed for passive reading. In fact, everything about the story is designed to keep readers active, if not fully engaged. From the constant switch in narrators to Catherine’s madness, a reader is never 100 percent certain what is actually occurring, what is a figment of Catherine’s imagination, and what is seen from another character’s point of view. There are many questions, not enough answers, and what answers are given require a reader to weed through the extraneous details. A reader never gets a break from this constant uncertainty. It is a gamble on Ms. Williams’ part, and one that is only going to succeed with certain types of readers. However, for the right reader, it is a novel that will leave one stunned at its resolution and impressed at the dexterity with which Ms. Williams wove this very intricate story.
The Pleasures of Men is not the type of novel where one can sit down and escape to 1840 London for an afternoon. It requires a reader’s full attention from the very first page and makes a reader work for every secret revealed and every answer shared. Ms. Williams’ debut is also not the type of novel which readers can and will appreciate while in the throes of reading or even immediately upon finishing. It requires reflection and time to understand everything that she accomplished with her story, allowing even the most jaded of readers to grudgingly admit her adroitness and talent at storytelling. Given everything she accomplishes in The Pleasures of Men, Ms. Williams is definitely an author worth watching.