By Gaslight, by Steven Price. Pub 2016
I have Steven Price’s most recent book (Lampedusa) on my “to read” list for 2020 (since I’m not allowed to buy it in 2019). I almost picked up By Gaslight during my trip to Munro’s in Victoria in September but was scared off by its size – at over 700 pages, it is quite a lot for my slow reading pace to take on. Then, a friend at work offered to lend it to me (in exchange for a Margaret Atwood), and so it found its way to my tsundoku. Teetering heavily near the top, it became my next read.
It took a while to get in to, as there are many layers and threads going on simultaneously, not to mention mistaken identities and murder mysteries. What got me to keep going was the dark and moody backdrop of Victorian London, with its fog and soot and stench, horses and carts, cobblestone roads and the miraculous gaslight bringing some glow to the dimness.
The search for and ultimate finding of the mysterious Edward Shade jumps back and forth between mid-19th century America, where many of the characters took part in the American Civil War, and late 19th century London, where all is slowly and somewhat revealed in the gloom of dimly lit streets and half-truths. Finding your way to the solution is a bit like trying to find your way in the dark through the windy streets and alleys of London (then or now), and so the setting captures the mood and the mystery extremely well.
Like any good mystery, there are secrets aplenty and more than a couple of gasp-inducing surprises. The ending is anticlimactic, with the last turn in the story being overwhelmed by the turn of the century and the modernization of the world. With the advent of technology, detection and solutions come easily. When things are illuminated only by gaslight, secrets are much harder to see and reveal.
There is also the more modern definition of gaslight: using manipulation and misdirection to deliberately alter someone’s perception of the world and their memories. This is also applicable here. As the secrets are revealed, the reasons for them are both less and more benign. The goal of hiding or changing the past by obscuring it with lies and misinformation becomes somewhat clearer, but the root of “why” is never quite clear, and as murky and unreliable as gaslighting itself.
The ending is somewhat unsatisfactory, revealing that the story is less about the mystery and more about the people and the times. And the length of the book can be daunting – it was for me. Overall, I’d recommend this one and I look forward to reading others by Steven Price.
A quibble: while I thought the writing was evocative and lush, perfect for the gloomy mystery, I found the author’s penchant for using rare descriptive words both interesting and frustrating, the latter because he would typically use the same new word twice within a few pages of each other and then never again in the story. Examples: warpling (something to do with glass that makes an image look twisted or warped), louring (frowning, gloomy, threatening).
NB: it was only after I finished that I realized that this book fit into just a single club category. I’m still able to count it – whew!
24 – a book by an author you’ve never read before