Garner (Nightdancing, 2003) returns with the tale of a mysterious, talented boy living in 19th-century England.
The night Edgar Jones is born, a meteor shower lights up the skies above Oxford University. His father William dotes on him, while his mother Eleanor worries about the innate wildness she sees in her only child. The author can’t seem to decide on a protagonist, leaving readers without intimate knowledge of or empathy for any one of the Joneses. Curious, precocious and determined, Edgar takes on an almost devilish quality as he grows up, parlaying an apprenticeship at an iron forge into a position at the university, where his father works as a night watchman. The professor who shepherds him into Oxford has dubious intentions, but Edgar falls in love with the ironwork involved in creating the professor’s pet project, a museum of natural history. Meanwhile, Eleanor, feeling isolated from her husband and son, starts a sewing business with the help of a benefactress. As the business becomes profitable, she acquires a new sense of independence, though the trials Edgar’s mischief brings her, as well as her relationship with an increasingly angry and erratic husband, are endless sources of angst. Garner doesn’t fully explore the motivations of her characters, who seem like caricatures. Edgar is certainly bizarre, but he is neither interesting nor likable. He is not scary enough to frighten, clever enough to admire or kind enough to champion. Choosing iron as the source of his inspiration poses a brave challenge, but the theme is painfully over-romanticized, and the fantastical elements require too much suspension of belief, especially at the end. Striving for attractively old-fashioned lyricism, the prose seems instead fabricated and childish. There are some thrilling scenes as the plot twists nicely toward the finale, but by then most readers are unlikely to care much anymore.
Disturbing, but not compelling.