In this inventive debut, Rosenberg transforms the legend of Jack Sheppard, infamous 18th-century London thief, into an epic queer love story.
When Dr. R. Voth, “a guy by design, not birth,” discovers a “mashed and mildewed pile of papers” at a university library book sale, he becomes obsessed with transcribing and documenting its contents. The manuscript appears to be a retelling of the Jack Sheppard legend, but it contains a marked difference: Jack was not born Jack, but P—, a young girl with a knack for making and fixing things. P— escapes indentured servitude and falls into the arms of Bess Khan, a prostitute of South Asian descent, who sees Jack as he longs to be seen. Together, the two lovers hatch schemes that take them across plague-ridden London, dodging the police state and the sinister grasp of Jonathan Wild, “Thief-Catcher General,” who has it out for Jack. Meanwhile, in the manuscript’s margins, Voth suffers at the hands of the crumbling state university and its exploitative administration. As punishment for frittering away his office hours, Voth must share the discovery of the manuscript with the “Dean of Surveillance” and a dubious corporate sponsor who leers at Jack’s story and, by extension, Voth’s humanity. “But you yourself are a—,” the sponsor ventures to Voth in an explanation he doesn’t have the guts to complete. Through a series of revealing footnotes, Voth traces queer theories of the archive as well as histories of incarceration, colonialism, and quack medicine practiced on the subjugated body. As the stories in the footnotes and the manuscript intertwine, the dual narrative shifts and snakes between voices and registers, from an 18th-century picaresque romp to an academic satire. Even when Rosenberg, a scholar of 18th-century literature and queer/trans theory at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, allows Voth to become pedantic, it’s in the service of this novel’s marvelous ambition: To show how easily marginalized voices are erased from our histories—and that restoring those voices is a disruptive project of devotion.
A singular, daring, and thrilling novel: political, sexy, and cunning as a fox.