Review: The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams

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THe Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams book cover
The Pleasures of Men (2012) is a deliciously dark piece of Victoriana by historian and first-time novelist, Kate Williams. 1840 and London is gripped by social and economic problems, a mysterious serial killer dubbed 'The Man of Crows' stalks the grimy streets, brutally murdering young woman, and the city's inhabitants live in fear of violence and poverty. In the midst of this, troubled orphan Catherine Sorgeul comes to live with her uncle in Spitalfields, East London. Displaced and unstable, Catherine struggles with visions and fantasies, fixating on The Man of Crows and forming an imagined bond with the vile murderer she reads about in the daily papers. As the vulnerable young lady begins to document the ever-evolving case, she draws closer to the crime and increasingly risks her own well-being, both physical and mental. In a story weighed down by filth and decrepitude, the line between sanity and madness is far from clear and there is no sense that a happy resolution is ensured for anyone.

This is more than a crime novel, this is a story about obsession, mental instability, and most importantly the place of women in Victorian society. Catherine Sorgeuil is a young woman struggling to make sense of her world and find a way of expressing her nature in a society that barely affords her a voice. Williams renders well the plight of the displaced woman in Victorian society, without rights or prospects, in need of male protection financially, socially, and here in a more fundamental role as protector of the body from a mortal threat. Indeed, The Man of Crows is a metaphor in himself for the savage treatment of women (upon whom fortune had not smiled) by a Victorian society who cared little for its weaker members.

There is an underlying mania in the novel, not only of the central character, but of the society who quietly represses its urges while fixating privately on violence, possession, and dominance. Catherine is a complex character and there are moments when Williams beautifully articulates her central character's state of mind and the claustrophobia of her position. Wracked with guilt and hellish visions, the heroine is certainly suffering from some form of depression or obsessive/personality disorder. Her episodes are well realised and the atmosphere of uncertainty that infects the novel is an excellent extension of Catherine's mental state. Interestingly, as her heroine documents the Man of Crows' crimes, both appalled by and compelled towards the violence, there is a whisper of the author present; she equally bound by the violence in her words and the process of writing.

A great deal of the story is communicated from the interior - the mind of the narrator - rather than through dialogue and interaction.The narrative is disjointed and perhaps because of this lacks any real drive. This might be representative of a troubled mind but it also amounts to poorly worked fiction, with the overall effect a clunky and badly drawn together plot. The narrative viewpoint jumps between characters chapter-to-chapter and this can be a little disconcerting as the reader struggles to untangle how each passage fits together, or if indeed they are simply fragments of a mind collapsing inwards. The value of these asides is never quite drawn out, and in a novel where much is made of inner turmoil, jumping so far from the central character's perspective feels like a missed step.

Given the author's background it is no surprise to find that the scene is drawn well by Williams, with rich details which only occassionally stray into too fine detail. The prose evokes a time of fear and uncertainty, not only for the safety of the city's young women, but for the economic and social problems that abound. Williams tarnishes everything with a grubbiness that places the story very firmly in the early Victorian era, before Imperial confidence and decadence had taken hold, when the city's inhabitants struggled and scrapped to survive.The murders in particular are gloriously gory, with graphic descriptions that leave little to the imagination.

While the setting is carefully drawn some of the drama is uncomfortably realised. The opening conflict of the book is set too precisely, with Catherine told every other sentence that she must not concern herself with unladylike things. This early section of the book might set the scene but is certainly lacking in subtlty and finesse. The conclusion too is far from perfect but it does round off an intelligent thriller and satiates the reader's curiosity just enough (although not entirely).

There is a risk in accepting this as elusive, dream-like fiction that creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and need not be held to account for its more irritating aspects. However, while the writing achieves an ephemeral aura there is too much, which cannot be attrbuted to this, that does not quite work. At the end there are simply too many unanswered questions and indecipherable problems; these adding nothing but a sense of confusion. The crime element of the novel too is a little familiar and ultimately the weakest part of the book, being entirely unextraordinary. All that said, there is an awful lot of promise in Williams's writing. This is clearly an early foray into fiction - a style that requires refinement but which promises much, despite failing to quite deliver here.

I struggled to form an opinion on this; it was pretty in and out, with some really strong sections and some really mediocre ones. In the end, I suppose I fell somewhere in the middle. There's a lot that is good here, but there is also a lot that requires some polishing.


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