This is a book review for My Notorious Life by Kate Manning, available here:
3* – difficult to get into
I purchased this book after it was mentioned to me by a friend as possibly being of interest during my research into the Victorian Era, most notably relating towards childbirth. I was expecting fiction that was easy to read so perhaps the fault was in my expectations, but I really struggled to get into this book. It also has to be said that memoir, fictional or otherwise, is not my favourite kind of book to read by a long shot!
It’s written in the first person vernacular as a fictionalised memoir and, while I can completely understand why it was written that way, it did get quite irksome at times. The total lack of useful punctuation made following the dialogue really difficult and the spelling was creative, to say the least. It’s also evident that the author was trying to channel some of the style of Arthur Conan Doyle in the way that you have two stories told entirely separately of each other and wound together at the end. Personally I don’t think it was successful. If you’re going to introduce The Enemy, do it consistently rather than as two peculiar throwaway chapters at what seemed to be random places in the book.
Once you’ve got over the above and really sunk your teeth into the story, Axie (Anne) Muldoon is kind of a fascinating character. At times she’s childish and selfish and untrusting, but she’s also vulnerable and loving and her strength of character in relation to certain events is extraordinary. You find yourself liking her, despite all her faults. It’s the same with Charlie – you want to like him but then he does something stupid or loutish and, as told through the distrustful eyes of Axie, you never know for sure until the end if he really is a good and decent guy. Everything she says about him is tainted with jealousy and distrust, despite his decent actions.
I think in the characterisations is where you really see the strength of this book. Manning has done a really good job of capturing how different life was back then, particularly for women. Some of the details were shocking and gruesome and the level of poverty is almost incomprehensible through our modern eyes, yet it’s really fascinating.
The central theme of the book as I see it is the status of women in the Victorian era, how they were second class citizens and had no choice in what happened to them. Probably the most perfect example of this in the story is when Madame is being lambasted for providing women with the incentive to become promiscuous and she, quite rightly, retorts that simply providing contraception doesn’t mean that all women will feel compelled to go and sleep with everything that moves. She’s providing a service because of the base natures of men who can’t and don’t see why they should keep it in their pants. It’s a really fascinating insight into the moral attitudes of the day. It seems women were assumed to be weak in all things and that the fault never lay with the men who abused that weakness.
Again, I think that’s a strength of this book. There are so many echoes of today’s victim-blaming society in it. You read this horrible, graphic account of life in Victorian America and realise that actually not that much has changed in terms of attitudes. It can be quite chilling.
It is a quintessential rags to riches story and Axie is such a brilliant and strong character that I personally found the ending to be a bit of a cop out. She’s so fiery and determined and outraged over injustice that I felt a bit let down by the conclusion to the story.
I’m not sure if I’d recommend this to others or not, but I did feel compelled to finish it.