A wacky marionette

A Curious Beginning - Deanna Raybourn

To say that I liked this book wouldn’t be true, but something in it intrigued and attracted me, and I kept reading until the end. It actually became better towards the end, less artificial somehow, even though the resolution of the story was totally unbelievable.

Actually, the entire novel was unbelievable, from the characters to the plot to the dialog. Perhaps this high incredibility level was that one elusive note that kept me from abandoning the book. I thought as I read: no, that can’t be right, what other screwy plot twist the author could come up with. So I kept on reading, and she didn’t disappoint. The absurdities piled up, the historical mystery turned into a farce, but I kept on reading.

In the beginning, the protagonist Veronica Speedwell tumbles into an adventure of her life, and she has had those aplenty before. She is a professional butterfly hunter and makes her living by selling rare butterflies she catches all over the world to collectors. The action takes place late in the Victorian era, so the best way to describe Veronica would be an ‘eccentric spinster.’

In the first pages, she buries her old aunt and feels free to pursue even more butterflies, and maybe some moths, when she finds her aunt’s cottage ransacked, and herself in a carriage with an older man who claims that she is in danger, and he is going to help her.

From that the story escalates into mayhem, but Veronica stays true to herself: rude and sharp-tongued, with no regard for common morals or even common curtesy. She always says some preposterous things, insults people, and invites hostility. In fact, her speech and dialogs in the first half of the book sounded as if the author went out of her way to make her heroine seem wacky, as irregular a young Victorian woman as (im)possible.

Veronica meets an enigmatic stranger, is thrown into a life of a carny with a freak show, encounters murderous Irish separatists and no less dangerous British secret service, and through it all, she remains unflappable. Not once did I feel that she has any emotions.

She was 3-dimentional but unfeeling, like a wooden marionette. The author pulled the strings, and she danced, but there was nothing inside that wooden doll, no life and only the author’s voice. Nobody but a puppet could survive Veronica’s misadventures, and she didn’t even seem overly upset. No fear manifested. No regrets. No longing for anything except more butterflies. I couldn’t form any emotional connection with her at all.

On the other hand, I do enjoy a puppet show occasionally, even a zany one, and this book was one of the best in that regard.