After taking one of the three-month creative writing courses in our London offices back in 2014, former student Janet Ellis’ debut novel was published in the UK in February 2016 to widespread acclaim. Set in a vividly described Georgian London, Ellis’ debut The Butcher’s Hook centres around Anne Jacob, a smart and bored nineteen-year-old, who finds herself forced into a loveless marriage by her dominating family, and who embarks on a love affair with a local butcher’s boy. Janet, of course, was already well-known in the UK for her stint as a presenter on the BBC’s flagship children’s programme Blue Peter in the 1980s.
The Butcher’s Hook was released in the US yesterday. And it’ll be interesting to see how people respond to the book across the pond, as Janet Ellis is by no means the recognised face in the US that she is here. Many UK reviewers, indeed, were a little surprised at finding a familiar, wholesome face from a classic era of children’s television writing a grown-up and complex piece of historical fiction, But reviews were quick to recognise the obvious originality of the novel too.
Natasha Tripney in the Observer described the book as a cross between ‘Fanny Burney’s Evelina and the US crime drama Dexter’. Tripney’s review goes on to describe Ellis’ writing as having ‘a wit and a richness […] a nice way with pastiche, and a real feel for the macabre. And, in Anne, she has created an engaging and at times daringly amoral heroine.’ In the Guardian, Clare Clarke describes Ellis as ‘one to watch’ with ‘a sharp eye and an even sharper wit’.
Other broadsheets were similarly positive, with the Times review stating that Ellis ‘revels in the historical details’ and ‘knows how to keep an audience hooked’, and The Sunday Times described the novel a ‘strange, unsettling story’.
The strength and distinctiveness of the central protagonist, Anne, is something a number of reviews have picked up on, with James Walton in Reader’s Digest describing her depiction as ‘unapologetically feminist’ and ‘an appealing but never remotely sentimentalised heroine’. Nadia Sawalha in the Sunday Express agreed, and described Anne as ‘audacious’.
More historically minded reviewers appear to approve as well, with the BBC History Magazine describing the novel as ‘a gripping work of fiction, full of twists and surprises’ – with Anne singled out as ‘a distinctively disturbing character.’
Janet’s fame has been something of a mixed blessing – it certainly created a lot of interest in her book, but most reviews have had to include an almost obligatory reference to her previous life as a TV presenter.
But it has always been clear that Janet wanted to launch herself as serious novelist – in fact, her debut was sold to publisher Two Roads under a pseudonym by Curtis Brown agent Gordon Wise. After being longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize, and after joining such impressive literary heavyweights as Tom Wolfe and Sebasitan Faulks in being nominated for the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex Award’, Ellis has firmly established herself as an exciting and distinctive new voice in fiction.
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