Matthew Kirby’s first two books, The Clockwork Three and Icefall are, I think, two of the best constructed and ambitious YA books out there. I haven’t been equally impressed with the ones since, though they still show marks of a fine craftsman in various aspects. Where then does his latest, A Taste for Monsters, fall? I’d say somewhere in between — better than the last few thanks to more vivid characters, a fine sense of the macabre, and deft handling of suspense; but not rising to the level of the first ones due to some issues of pace, a more straightforward structure, and maybe some pat plotting (though this is less of an issue for MG/YA).
For A Taste for Monsters, Kirby juxtaposes two events from 1888 London: Jack the Ripper terrorizing the city with his brutal murders, and Joseph (here called “John”) Merrick , otherwise known as The Elephant Man, enchanting the city with the apparent contrast between his exterior and interior. In addition to this pair of historical personages, Kirby adds a young orphan woman named Evelyn. Horribly disfigured due to an earlier job in a matchstick factory (much of her lower face was eaten away by “phossy jaw” due to the phosphorous) and desperate to avoid an early death on the city’s streets, Evelyn tries to take refuge by applying to become a nurse at a London Hospital. Unfortunately she is too young for the position and, the matron fears, too frightening for the patients. Here, though, her disfigurement becomes an opportunity, for the matron figures if anyone can handle the sight of The Elephant Man, who resides in the hospital and is in constant need of a new maid, it would be someone who herself is physically marred and knows the sight of a repulsed public.
Much to Evelyn’s surprise, she does in fact strike up a close relationship with Merrick, becoming the confidante he will eventually need once the gothic elements in the novel arrive via nightly visitations by a stream of ghosts to Merrick’s hospital apartment, visitations which not only frighten him but seem to leech him of life. As he edges ever closer towards death, Evelyn must find the strength within herself to venture back out in the streets she once swore she would never set foot on again, all on a quest to discover the meaning of Merrick’s ghosts and end their potentially fatal hauntings. Though the quest itself might prove fatal, as those streets are themselves haunted, though this time by a living figure — Jack the Ripper, whose own tale somehow meshes with that of Merrick.
The strength of A Taste for Monsters lies in the vividly realized character of Evelyn, who is portrayed as a multi-faceted young woman and not the easy stereotype of the plucky young pre-modern gal who leaps wholeheartedly into danger because risk has been forbidden her by societal strictures. What holds her back is in part society — its reaction to her looks — but also her own fears, her lack of self-confidence, her past mistakes, and a desire to hide for the rest of her life in the relative comfort and contentment of the hospital. She overcomes all this, of course, but not easily, and not smoothly, suffering backslides and showing the type of normal selfishness we don’t usually see in these types of characters. The multiple facets of her character are also nicely delineated by the many interactions Kirby sets up for her — John Merrick with his obviously analogous (if more extreme) situation, a brashly obnoxious suitor whose interest in her Evelyn greatly mistrusts, several young women colleagues (each themselves portrayed as unique individuals despite a lack of page time), a pair of doctors (again, each differentiated from the other), the head matron, and several minor or one-off characters from the streets. These latter ones give us a wholly different side of Evelyn, as we see her morph now and then back into the hard-edged girl who did what she must to stay alive out there before she came to the hospital.
Merrick, as well, is vividly portrayed as a kind, gentle soul. And while this could have (and some might say it does) tipped over into sentimentality and cliché — the disabled person whose disability polishes their inner nature into a near-saintly softness — Kirby wisely gives Merrick some moments that dull that shine at least a little. And the relationship between him and Evelyn is truly one to bask in as a reader.
Kirby shows a nice touch with the gothic elements — the ghosts despite being ghosts become characters in their own right, as well as adding a definite dose of creepiness and horror. Meanwhile, the constant detailed (and graphic — fair warning) news reports of Jack’s murders that are read aloud in the hospital contribute to an overall miasma of terror and suspense, as the reader of course figures at some point Jack will come into the story more directly (he does, but that’s all I’ll say about that so as to avoid major spoilers).
Despite all those positive aspects, A Taste for Monsters didn’t grab me as much as I thought it would based on its description. The pacing seemed a bit off, with several segments that lagged. As just one example, while the historical detail helps create their world, I felt that too much time was spent on getting characters from points A to B to C, with much of that time spent on period description. Thanks to that and a few other issues, such as the side plot of the suitor maybe taking up a little too much time, the book felt a bit over-long, by about 50-70 pages or so. A tighter construction would have, I think, made it more compelling given its gothic nature with the ghosts and the inherent suspense of Jack the Ripper.
A Taste for Monsters is a well written book, its prose fluid, vivid, and conveying a nice sense of the time period. The characters are all sharply drawn and stand out one from another no matter how much page time each is given. And both the central character and the central relationship, as well as the core struggle of the novel, which is more interior than exterior, have you invested in what happens. But it falls a bit short of what it promises in its premise in terms of grabbing you by the throat and not letting go until the mystery is solved (I had a few issues with the end as well, but for obvious reasons won’t detail those). Making it a solid read that leaves you wishing for a bit more fire and compulsive energy.