These Shallow Graves

These Shallow Graves - Jennifer Donnelly

[I received a copy of this novel through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

A bit too long to my taste for the story it told, although some of the scenes at the end were worth the read.

It started with interesting ideas. Jo is a wealthy girl, who may look like she's got everything but is tied to her family's wishes and to society's diktats: finishing school is just that, and once she's out of it, she'll marry the man who was already chosen for her, and will have to give up her dreams of writing. Journalism is so below her class that she's not even allowed to read the newspapers, and has to do so in secrecy. She doesn't want to give up, doesn't want to renounce, yet deep inside, she feels there's no other choice, that choosing otherwise will ruin her family as well as herself; she's likely to get disallowed, and it takes some bravery to risk that fate. Jo is brave... but not so brave. And although it's not openly stated (way less openly than the "fine women = fine breeding dogs" comparison enforced by insufferable Grandmama), I think this is perhaps why she embraces the mystery surrounding her father's death. Not only because she's bereaved, not only because she wants to learn the truth: because this is her first and only chance at an adventure before she gets stuffed into a life she's may or may not really want. Selfish? Maybe. But understandable.

As often in similar stories, there was romance involved, and unfortunately, in this case, it kind of killed the mood for me. The danger and stakes Jo had to face were already a lot, enough to highlight the dilemma in her existence. The love interest thrown in the middle (without any spark in there) added drama and angst-filled scenes that clashed with what could have been otherwise a fine thread woven into the mystery: Jo's wishes to live a life of her own choosing, as a woman who wants to be a journalist (all the more since she could've been of the muckraker variety, albeit a few years before investigative journalism really started to soar).

Trudy smiled ruefully. “What can I say? I merely wish to smoke. Sparky can forgive that. You, on the other hand, wish to know things. And no one can forgive a girl for that.”

Instead, this took the backstage in favour of trading one man for the other, as if the real choice here was only who to love, and not the whole package. To be fair, though, the author didn't go with the easiest solution at the end, which in my opinion is good. Still, had there been no romantic plot, it may have allowed for more development when it came to Jo's family, her friends, and her life as a person in general; it may also have helped fleshing out the friendships she developed, as those seemed to happen too fast, too strongly, and were not really believable, not considering what the characters did for each other later.

The tone of the story was a bit... childish, considering the themes tackled (suicide, life on the streets, prostitutes and pickpockets, digging up corpses—not a spoiler, by the way, as the first chapter opens exactly on that). Often a chapter would end on a mini-cliffhanger phrased in a way that I would've expected from a novel with a much younger audience, so to speak (for instance, "Jo and Eddie were trapped," or "Jo and Eddie were locked in the closet."). This clashed with what was a more serious story. The writing style in general border on the "telling, not showing" variety, and made for a dull reading in places. I couldn't care that much about Jo, or Eddie, whose feelings seemed more mechanical when told in such a way.

Moreover, Jo didn't strike me as believable: she was way too ignorant and naive for someone who supposedly had an interest in investigative journalism, read the newspapers behind her parents' backs, and was supposed to be inquisitive and sharp. A lot of times, other characters had to spell out things for her (for instance, she took her sweet time to understand the hints at what "Della's house" meant, when it was absolutely obvious). It would've worked if she had been a fully-sheltered young woman of fine upbringing who had never taken an interest to anything else than her family, gardening and parties, but it didn't fit the wannabe-journalist part of her character.

Finally, a lot of things were predictable, both in the mystery and its clues, and in how some characters were linked to the investigation plot. I suspect the latter was intended in a Dickensian way, but I found this heavy-handed (there are a few glaring references to Oliver Twist) and not very efficient. It was too easy to guess who was related to whom, and where the whole thing was going, even though, as I wrote above, some of the ending scenes were fine, and made up a little for many more boring scenes that came before.

Conclusion: an interesting historical background and OK mystery, that however would've unfurled more efficiently without all the romantic angst and faffing about. 1.5 to 2 stars.