This is the first of occasional reviews that I’ll be posting here at Home Cooked Books. I’ll only be reviewing books that I’m NOT narrating or directing for audio. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know so many book bloggers over the past year, and thanks to them, I’m inspired to add my two cents to the kitty. This book in particular wowed me, and I hope that others will consider reading it.
From the Publisher:
1845. New York City forms its first police force. The great potato famine hits Ireland. These two seemingly disparate events will change New York City. Forever.
I was surprised by how much I loved GODS OF GOTHAM. Though I love historical fiction, I knew next to nothing about New York in the mid-nineteenth century, even less about the potato famine. In addition, I am not one who generally seeks out mysteries (they often give me nightmares). I think what really got to me with GODS OF GOTHAM was Lyndsay Faye’s dense and enthralling creation of this world. As I read I could see, smell and hear the filth, stink, and clamor of New York City in the summer of 1845 (detailed down to the speckled pigs trotting about, “mud-crusted and randy and miraculously nimble”). Her main character Timothy Wilde completely captured my heart. A natural poet (and detective), the world was painted via his senses. I felt the myriad tragedies, discoveries and wonders as urgently as he did. I fell in love with Tim and Bird, the young girl he inadvertently rescues, almost immediately. With his ability to see people and situations with clarity and beauty, with her strength and courage in horrific circumstances.
As an example of the dense lyricism of Tim’s observations, here’s his description of his fellow copper stars at first glance:
I raked my eyes across my new cohorts. A fool’s motley coat would have looked uniform next to the seated mob. There seemed to be about fifty of them, and again I felt like a patch of vacant silence in the middle of a tumult.
To me, this novel was as much about relationships and politics as it was about the nasty crime that Tim is challenged to solve before its discovery blows up an already roiled religious and political climate. The battle for supremacy between the American Protestant “dead rabbits” and Irish Catholic immigrants underlies a great deal of the drama, with good guys and bad guys on both sides of the aisle.
Timothy and his elder brother Valentine, orphaned when their parents are killed in a house fire, have a tempestuous and compelling relationship. Tim cannot bear to be with his brother, who seems to torment him, nor can he bear to be without him. Valentine on his part maddeningly manipulates Tim, at the same time that he takes care of him. Other characters fascinate as well: the woman Tim moons after, Mercy Underhill, Mercy’s father Reverend Underhill, the notorious madam Silkie Marsh, Tim’s landlady the widow Boehm, the chief of the “copper stars” Justice George Washington Matsell, the pediatrician Palsgrave, and my favorites, the gang of newsboys Tim employs to aid in his detective work.
After all, the news hawkers were as good as their own army. They had to be – they were the city’s youngest independent entrepreneurs in a town where the word cutthroat applied to businessmen in both the literal and figurative senses.
With all of them, Tim displays such decency and young-for-his-age wisdom:
There are moments when you decide that you respect a man, and other moments when you decide you’re on that man’s side.
Though the relationships were paramount to me, the mystery is a well-crafted one, with layers and surprises throughout. It sheds light on the religious and political conflicts, the racism growing out of the mass of Irish immigration, and the intense poverty of the time. And, I did not see the end coming.
Finally, Faye has employed a dialect used by the Irish immigrants called Flash (complete with a Lexicon at the front of the book) quite skillfully. Its use lends to the poetry of the text, but I rarely had to actually refer to the Lexicon, as the character’s intentions were most always made clear.
I read this book as a part of Jen (Devourer of Books) and Nicole’s (Linus’s Blanket) Book Club, and am so grateful to them, as I may not have discovered it otherwise. The ARC copy was provided by Amy Einhorn/Putnam Books.
In fact this BOOK CLUB was so successful that we’ve all been given a signed copy to give away. To be entered, just make a comment below before 6 p.m. PST on Thursday April 12, when I will choose a winner at random. If you win, I will contact you via email to get your mailing address and the name to which you’d like the book inscribed. Open only to entrants who live in the US or Canada (no PO Boxes please).