"The author has a talent for painting the dreariness and squalor of the life led by 18th-century “climbing boys” like Egan. It is a uniformly awful existence where only the slightest glimmers of hope survive." 3.5 stars awarded
A lawyer myself, I’m a sucker for historical novels based on actual cases. Author A.M. Watson has lifted a classic from law school first-year casebooks, the 18th century King’s Bench case of Armory v Delarmirie, and spun out a fully fleshed fictional backstory to the brief official summary of this landmark decision. A small boy, Egan, inherits an ash sack from a deceased predecessor after having been sold by his destitute mother to a violent and drunken chimney sweep, Master Armory. After learning the trade from Pitt, a more experienced boy whom he befriends, Egan removes what he believes to be a stone from the ash sack upon which he’d become accustomed to sleeping. Cleaning off the stone, he discovers a valuable jeweled brooch which he is certain he can sell to raise the five guineas needed to buy his freedom from his abusive master. After an unscrupulous goldsmiths apprentice takes the stones from the brooch and leaves Egan with only the setting, the boy confesses to his master. Seeing an opportunity for a substantial windfall, Master Armory hires a lawyer and the case then unfolds along the lines of the historical record.
The author has a talent for painting the dreariness and squalor of the life led by 18th-century “climbing boys” like Egan. It is a uniformly awful existence where only the slightest glimmers of hope survive. The dangerous scenes she creates, with almost Dickensian precision, of crumbling chimneys and red-hot flues are both graphic and terrifying. The band of long-suffering but intrepid boys is artfully drawn in all their rivalries and tendernesses, loyalties and shared deprivations.
However, with the denouement rather evident from the earliest chapters, the storyline loses pace as the author stretches material that would make for a taught novella into a near 300-page novel. In addition, the author’s research of the period is patchy, with lapses in historical accuracy and a few too many anachronisms: these include a shaky knowledge of 18th-century undergarments - poor people did not wear them (even many better of souls did not!) She has a shaky knowledge of pence, shillings and guineas ("I'll do it fer a fourpence" a denomination that never existed - unless this is a typo and should read 'I'll do it fer fourpence"?) As an American lawyer she commits the error of having a solicitor argue a case before the King's Bench. Tut tut. The word "git" is 20th century and lower class Londoners of 1722 would not have used the word 'wee'.
Infants of the Brush could have done with a few more passes of the editorial brush; however, this is a writer with promise, who exhibits substantial craft and with a good, knowledgeable, editor could well be one to watch.
© Jeffrey K. Walker