CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 36. . . .May 22, 2015
Mad Miss Mimic.
Toronto, ON: NY: Razorbill/Penguin Canada, 2015.
261 pp., trade pbk., $16.00.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Jocelyn Reekie.
Reviewed from advance Reading Copy.
There are things I cannot say in any voice.
I was born Leonora Emmaline Somerville, but I am not at all sure that is still who I am.
Oh, I could tell you the facts as you will find them in The Examiner and The Times and the Morning Post. I could tell you which Illustrated London News artist depicted the burning masts most faithfully, which Royal Academy painter best captured the hurricane of light reflected on black water. But I could not tell you where to find me in their pictures, or even which of the facts are reliable when it comes to me.
“Miss Somerville,” they called me to my face at Hastings House, and “Mad Miss Mimic” when they thought I could not hear. Which is the more accurate name for me? My sister always says that one’s station determines who one is. Certainly she believed it her life’s noblest task to secure my station through a good marriage. She did believe it, and she did try—I must grant her that at least.
My aunt Emmaline says that your story decides who you are. But what about the chapters I did not write? Those scenes in which I stood by, watching in horror, but found nothing to say? Those moments when my tongue froze, and I tasted ashes and could not produce a single word?
Sarah Henstra’s first novel, Mad Miss Mimic, is the kind of book that makes nonsense of age categorizations when it comes to marketing books. The story is told in the first person, from the point of view of a 17-year-old protagonist named Leonara (Leo) Somerville. That makes the book appropriate for the young adult crowd while some of the more graphic content and difficult subject matter put it more on the adult side of the spectrum. The overall content, however, is great reading for anyone of any age who is interested in people and relationships, history, important social issues, past and present, and mystery, and who can read the above excerpt.
This is a story that will pull both young adult and adult readers deeper and deeper into the lives of the wealthy as well as the lives of those who inhabit the back streets and grimmest areas of Leo’s London in 1872, and the plots and subplots that abound in such a place.
Leo is a stunningly beautiful girl who stands to inherit great wealth, but who is afflicted with a condition that threatens to doom her to a life of shame and inglorious spinsterhood. She cannot speak in her own voice without s-s-stut-t-tering, but she can speak fluently in the voices of others and mimic them perfectly. This ability could be her salvation. Instead, it is yet another curse. Leo lacks control over both what she says when she suddenly transforms into someone else and when the seemingly random words of that person will come spewing out of her mouth. Most often, the mimic pops out at the most inopportune times, and many of those who see and hear Leo’s transformations believe she is mad. Then, there are those who find her apparent ranting injurious to their cause and would silence her forever.
Leo is the main protagonist, but she is not the only character who commands the attention of the reader. With skill and depth, Henstra has created a thorough cast of complex and often perplexing characters like: Tom Rampling—an apprentice with many secrets and incredibly skilful hands; Mr. Francis Gabriel Thornfax (AKA Lord Rosbury)—a stunningly handsome businessman in search of the perfect cover story; Daisy—a girl simply born into bad luck, Dr. Daniel Dewhurst—an inventor for whom people are the guinea pigs in his lab; Leo’s social-climbing and sadly addicted sister, Christabel; Leo’s cousin, Archie Mavety—a newspaperman on a mission, and aunt Emmaline, herself—a dowager who is not easily fooled and who is not a fool.
The author’s knowledge of the era is impressive, and her ability to transport the reader there with snappy dialogue, compelling descriptions and vital characters, while she weaves a tale of intrigue—with implications that go far beyond the personal lives of those involved—of love, of loss and of self discovery, is masterful.
Nineteenth century England is a place where medicine, commerce and people are on the move, where appearances often trump substance and the city streets are covered in filth, where a social conscience is beginning to rise but society’s values remain sunk in the age-old muck of class and greed, and paupers are disposable. Mad Miss Mimic sees it all and, through her, Henstra lets readers experience it. Thank you to the author for a very satisfying read.
The author’s note at the end of the book enlightens the reader further regarding the facts about several key elements in the book, and it will provide great starting points for in-depth discussion.
Jocelyn Reekie is a writer and editor in Campbell River, BC.
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