The Butcher's Hook
By Janet Ellis, Anansi International, 349 pages, $22.95
The rush of this novel is its macabre sense of justice. Set in London in 1763, The Butcher's Hook concerns 19-year-old Anne Jaccob, a smart girl with limited education who's grown up in stultifying isolation. Marriage presents the problem in this book – just as a butcher's boy steals Anne's heart, her wealthy father sets Anne up with a noxious, extremely unsuitable suitor – but it's no marriage plot. Instead, it's a sexually heightened gothic of the type de Sade would approve. Untethered from the sense that virtue will be rewarded, the gothic is fit for revolutionary times because it's free to depict the true horror of human nature. The events in The Butcher's Hook predate the French Revolution by 26 years, but there's a similar sense here of ambition unfairly tamped by an unjust social order. That's the thrill of the bloodbath when Anne takes the law into her own hands.
We Love You, Charlie Freeman
By Kaitlyn Greenidge, Algonquin, 324 pages, $38.95
Let's state from the start that this is a deeply unsettling novel about anti-black racism's legacy in America, but Kaitlyn Greenidge knows what she's doing, which is using a discomfiting premise to explore experiences of blackness and our lack of language for talking about race. The premise: The Freemans, a black family from Boston, move into an institute for ape research in rural, western Massachusetts, where they adopt a chimpanzee, Charlie, as part of an experiment on ape language. Nothing's explicitly wrong with this scenario – the Toneybee Institute selected the Freemans ostensibly for their fluency in sign language – and yet: Considering America's history of racist caricature and social Darwinism (including, as we later learn, the institute's own disturbing past), everything about this situation is potentially inflammatory, in ways that characters are initially unwilling to name. It's uneasy reading, but then it's not an easy topic. Pointedly multi-dimensional writing that denies pat answers.
By Shirley Barrett, Little, Brown, 355 pages, $30
A novel spun around a fascinating piece of Australian history, Rush Oh! brings to life the co-operative whale hunt between the whalers and the Killers of Twofold Bay during the tumultuous season of 1908. (The Killers were a pack of killer whales who aided the whalers, shared the spoils of the hunt and were local celebrities in their own right.) Our narrator is Mary Davidson, eldest child of "Fearless" George Davidson, headsman of the Twofold Bay whaling crew. Whaling has sustained the Davidsons for three generations, but by 1908, it's on the wane. The novel's conceit is that it's Mary's unpublished memoir. Written 30 years later, Mary recalls that twilight season when she was 19, the mystery surrounding the love of her life, and her family's final hurrah before it began to come apart. A highly enjoyable story combining romance, intrigue and social history; a slice of long-passed way of life.