The Gifts by Liz Hyder: A stark and fearless exposure of injustice and male entitlement - book review by Pam Norfolk
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Liz Hyder – the critically acclaimed author of teen thriller Bearmouth – transports readers to dizzy new heights with her extraordinarily original and powerfully feminist debut adult novel which features a group of winged women seeking liberation in early Victorian England.
Steeped in Hyder’s stunning prose, all the atmospherics of a classic 19th century novel, and a captivating brand of magical realism that blends the surreal with romance, and rich historical detail with searing contemporary resonance, The Gifts is a multi-layered tale of soaring imagination that enthrals from first to last.
At the heart of the gripping action is a cast of fierce and resilient women, each trapped within the bounds of a patriarchal society, and each determined to use their extraordinary friendship and new-found powers to break free and fly high from domestic and professional enslavement.
In October of 1840, four women have ambitions that they fear might never be realised. Etta, an aspiring botanist, lives with her faithful dog Scout in the keeper’s cottage on her half-brother Walter’s estate in a Shropshire forest.
Etta’s mother was a freed slave on their father’s plantation and she has been banished from the house by Walter who describes her as ‘my father’s exotic bastard’ and tells her that ‘knowledge is a dangerous thing for a woman to have.’
In London, we meet Mary, a young journalist who is the brilliant but secret ‘scrivener’ behind her drunken Uncle Jos’s court reporting job. She makes her living as a seamstress but she feels the weight of her responsibilities to keep a home for herself and Uncle Jos, and longs to be so much more than a journalist writing in the shadows.
Meanwhile, across the sea-salt mud flats of the Thames estuary in Mersea, Natalya works on mending fishing nets but dreams of making a living from her extraordinary and immersive gift for storytelling. The black sheep of the family in her native Orkney islands, she has come to London to ‘vanish’ and make a fresh start.
And then there is gifted artist Annie, wife of London surgeon Edward Meake, a man who longs for fame as a medical pioneer in ‘the age of science’ and who has been ‘half-driven mad’ by his friend and fellow surgeon’s assertion that as doctors, they are, in their own way, ‘gods.’
Married for three years, Annie fears they are living beyond their means and is haunted by the fact that she still has no children, feeling their absence ‘almost as a presence… a faded dream of those who have not yet come to pass.’
But change is coming and when Etta stumbles through the forest one day – grief-stricken over the poisoning of her precious dog – she feels her body jerking and shaking as a searing pain cracks across her back. Immediately she senses the weight of something and finds that a pair of russet wings, larger than an eagle’s, has sprung from her back.
And when rumours of a ‘fallen angel’ reach London, the news feeds into the increasingly unstable Edward’s desires… and will place the women at his mercy in the most terrible danger.
Hyder’s seductive way with words, and the vivid imagery that brings this remarkable story to life, are the driving force that propels us into a world based on a fantastical premise but which unfolds with convincing clarity and grittiness, and with all the tropes and atmospherics of traditional Victorian fiction.
After a spectacular opening chapter, the story winds back to earlier days and plunges us into the lives and constraints of four very different women as their hopes, fears, and back-stories are slowly revealed.
Through five distinctive narrative voices – four women and one man – we become caught up in the threads of their journeys and follow the women’s fates at the hands of a ruthless surgeon who tells them that their wings are his God-given ‘gift,’ allowing him ‘do unto you whatever He guides me to.’
Set against the evocative landscape of a society held in the thrall of religious superstition, Hyder’s harrowing and yet ultimately hopeful tale of female empowerment explores the limitations imposed on women in everyday Victorian life, and how greed and ambition can so easily lead to abuse and coercive control.
With its stark and fearless exposure of injustice and male entitlement, and the contrasting mysterious and magical ‘angel wings’ that carry Hyder’s storytelling to new heights, The Gifts is uncompromising, unforgettable and unmissable.
(Manilla Press, paperback, £8.99)