Review: THE GODS OF GOTHAM by Lyndsay Faye

TheGodsOfGothamI am quite desperate to know what cover options were ditched in favour of this cover for Lyndsay Faye’s THE GODS OF GOTHAM. Not only would I never have picked this book up if I’d seen it on a shelf somewhere without knowing anything about it, but it was so bad I almost didn’t bother reading it even after I’d ordered it from the library especially because I figured the boringness of the cover would have seeped into the pages. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve grown to trust recommendations from this reader I’d have never read a page of what looks to me like something Arthur Hailey rejected in the 60’s.

Happily the story inside is a different kettle of fish all together.

It takes place in New York in 1845 when the city is literally bursting with refugees from the Irish famine and tensions between the foreigners and Americans are high as people scrabble for jobs, homes and food, none of which are in plentiful supply. Everyone, even children, must do whatever it takes to survive. The story’s action centres on Timothy Wilde, a young man with a grim personal history who finds himself an unwilling recruit to the city’s first police force established, against strong resistance from some sectors of the community, by the dominant political players of the day which include Wilde’s older brother Valentine. When he’s not been in the job more than a few weeks Timothy encounters a girl, not yet a teenager, who has escaped from a brothel with a harrowing tale. Timothy and the fledgling police force are drawn into an investigation which threatens to turn the religious resentments which already exist between the Protestant Americans and Catholic Irish foreigners into an all-out war.

I know absolutely nothing about this time or place in history and so have no clue if Faye’s version of New York is even vaguely accurate but she made me believe in it from the outset. She makes superb use of language, including a local rouge’s slang known as flash (for which there is a handy dictionary of terms included), and has an enveloping, three-dimensional way of describing the locations. In fact the sense of place is so vividly depicted that I find it difficult to believe I haven’t travelled in a time machine and seen it all for myself. Not that I’d have wanted to spend a lot of time there if such magical travel were possible as Faye has not offered the kind of ‘genteel picture of a different age’ that some historical fiction offers. The squalor, poverty and harsh grind it takes just to survive this environment are palpable.

I suspect all of that would make for grim reading on its own but the lighter aspect of the novel is provided in the characters. Not that they’re lightweight by any stretch of the imagination but there’s a resilience and spirit in most of them that balances out the darker elements of the environment. Timothy is not at first all together likeable, a bit self-righteous for me, but Faye develops him nicely and allows him to grow and react to to the things he experiences which is a far better (and I imagine more difficult) achievement than having him fully formed before we meet him. His relationship with his brother, who is something of a scoundrel, is tormented but very believable and the resolution of their discord is very well done. I found the relationship with his love interest, Mercy Underhill, less compelling though it didn’t put me off. Mercy is the daughter of a local Protestant reverend is heavily involved in charity work that no one else will touch (such as ministering to the Catholic population) and Timothy has been in love with her since he was a boy. Towards the end of the novel Mercy comes into her own as a character, displaying the deep frustration of a woman who wants to be something other than what society will allow.

The book is not perfect. Faye’s extensive research occasionally spills observably onto the page, though at least this is in the form of unnecessary plot sidetracks which I find easier to cope with than clunky exposition which hardly makes an appearance here, and it does feel a little bit too much like it’s setting up future instalments rather than allowing the novel to stand on its own. But these are minor quibbles in the scheme of things and I was thoroughly swept along by this fast-paced and very atmospheric tale. I even loved the different meanings that the book’s title could be interpreted as having as it progresses. Highly recommended to the historical fiction lovers of strong constitution.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam [2012]
ISBN 9780399158377
Length 414 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series #1 in the Timothy Wilde series?

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2 Responses to Review: THE GODS OF GOTHAM by Lyndsay Faye

  1. Bernadette – You bring up one of the real difficulties of making an historical novel work: making the story authentic without focusing overmuch on the research. I’m glad this one struck that balance for you. And let’s face it; life required a very strong constitution in most historical eras, so it makes sense that reading about it would too… Oh, and I agree about the cover.

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  2. Pingback: Books of the Month – April 2013 | Reactions to Reading

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