The Gifts is Liz Hyder’s debut adult novel, a nineteenth century historical fiction with a generous helping of magical realism. The story’s characters, whether major or minor, are strong and memorable. Liz Hyder’s confident writing style, too, makes for an excellent reading experience. Previously, her debut young adult novel, Bearmouth was awarded a Waterstones Children’s Book Prize, the Branford Boase Award and was chosen as Children’s Book for the Year by The Times. With such an auspicious writing pedigree, I had high hopes.
A book is sometimes as much a visual delight as a reading pleasure and The Gifts is one such example. The illustrator, Sally Taylor deserves huge credit for adding a significant and rewarding element to the story with her exquisite pencil drawings. I especially loved the wee feathers at the lower corners of the final few blank pages, as if the story continues somewhere beyond words. Look out for them, they’re lovely. Also, the reader knows by the small drawing assigned to each new chapter, which character’s point of view is coming up next.
Set in 1840, The Gifts begins near Ludlow in Shropshire, but the bulk of the story takes place in London. However, the storyline includes the Scottish islands of Orkney as well as Jamaican sugar plantations. Ludlow, though, is an area the author clearly knows well and describes beautifully:
‘Ludlow is a surprisingly hilly town and autumnal landscapes – fields and hills and forests, roll away in all directions like folds in a dress. Greens and browns, velvet and silks, hedgerows like seams holding the whole countryside together.’
The Gifts is written in the present tense, which gives the reader a sense of immediate immersion. There’s a strong emphasis on female emancipation, as well as nature and art, colonialism and the class system, and the rapidly developing medicine and technology of the day. One of the main characters, Etta, is a keen botanist:
‘Today has been a most excellent day, for Etta has recorded the sighting of Pinguicula vulgaris, known more commonly as butterwort … the more one sees, the more one learns, the more one realises how little one actually knows. Light, cold, rain and heat – each of these things affect every plant.’
However, Etta is thwarted in her efforts to be taken seriously by her male peers:
‘Reading his letter again … she feels the heat of her annoyance spreading over her like a rash. How dare he, a man of the cloth, dismiss her as a hobbyist when she has devoted many years of her life to the study and understanding of plants? Is it not true that he is in fact the hobbyist?’
The emancipation of women, as we all know, is an ongoing and evolving process. But it’s nonetheless interesting to reflect on how far we’ve come from the following attitude from an eminent London physician in 1840 towards a woman’s inability to become pregnant:
‘Well, I hope you’ve not been reading too much – there is a school of thought that believes the blood may be drained away from the uterus and sent to the brain’
At the back of the book, Liz Hyder has included an extensive and impressive bibliography, Reading Group Questions, and then several pages where she explains the origins of The Gifts and why she chose to write and develop such strong female characters:
‘I … moved to a small medieval town in south Shropshire … everywhere I looked, I saw traces of the past … the Industrial Revolution had scarred the landscape … through books and museums, word of mouth and stories, I fell backwards in time, discovering Victorian scientists, geologists and botanists … and yet, the women were largely absent … reduced to wives, mothers or siblings …’
It’s easy to forget that those who lived through the early to mid-1800s witnessed colossal, often dramatic, changes in their daily lives as the Industrial Revolution took off in grand style. The earliest gasometers were developed in 1805 for factories in Salford, Manchester and would’ve been a feature throughout England during the time in which this story is set. I remember gasometers in the 1970s and being impressed by how they rose and fell with daily usage. This ‘modern technology’ of the 1840s is peppered throughout the whole story.
‘She weaves past the small servants’ hall as the open-flame gas lamps flicker and hiss, turning right to pass the kitchen and diminutive but well-stocked wine cellar before a final left by the tiny blue-wash laundry room and along the hallway, clad recently with wood below the dado rail to hide the rising damp underneath.’
Here’s an extract from the point of view of a London surgeon’s wife. Of particular note are the contrasts between literal space allocated to servants (see above), compared with their masters and mistresses:
“Edward! Please!’ Annie reaches out a conciliatory hand, but this new dining table is too big and he is too far away.’
Chapters are short and snappy, a story-telling technique which serves to keep the narrative moving at a steady pace. Ideal for snatched reading time, because a page or two of a book is almost always feasible. However, I gulped this book down in two sittings. Why? Well, because the story is compelling right from the opening lines, and I was impatient to know more:
‘The bark is rough under her hands, scratching at her palms and fingers as she stumbles between the trees. She retches violently, her body jerking and shaking as the convulsions push her forward, deep into the clutches of the forest.’
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Gifts and strongly recommend it to readers interested in historical fiction as well as anyone who enjoys a well-told and engaging story. Here’s what others have said:
‘Haunting, magical, wonderful.’ Joanne Burn.
‘Thrilling.’ Stacey Halls.
‘A glorious, evocative read, ripe for movie adaptation. Victorian girl power? You bet.’ Apple Books.
(c) Jo Nestor
Jo Nestor, retired Adult Educator, lives in Leitrim and writes fulltime. Twice long-listed for the FISH memoir competition, she won the Leitrim Guardian Literary Award, 2020. Her writing features in the 2021 edition of the broadsheet, Autumn Leaves, the Leitrim Guardian, and at Writing.ie She chooses to live in hope.
Order your copy online here.