Baker’s ambitious debut novel features a Victorian setting, mismatched lovers, dysfunctional families, doomed journeys of discovery, and the art and manufacture of glass.
Our narrator and protagonist is Carlotta Dell’oro, a too-tall redhead, a ginger, only daughter of eccentric parents Leopold and Clotilde. The novel concentrates on their story, how they meet in the rooms of Felix Girard, eccentric explorer and collector, father of Clotilde. Leo falls for her, it seems, on sight, but he is diffident; obtuse but obsessive. Leo joins a cast of caricatures aboard the Narcissus for a journey to the Yucatan to study and collect specimens. This is Girard’s journey, and Clotilde comes along. She concertizes on a spinet in her room, the men in her orbit, planets around a vain, blonde sun. Much happens. Clotilde and Leo find themselves together, back in dank, cold Whitby, England, married. At a loose end, low on funds, unable to relate to his narcissistic wife, Leo becomes an apprentice in the glasswork of Thomas Argument. The marriage a failure, the angular Argument becomes the hypotenuse in the Dell’oro love triangle. Leo immerses himself in the intricacies of re-creating ephemeral ocean creatures in glass. There are dazzling passages, and the concrete details of glass manufacture reign in the mannered prose. Is it the setting? Or the fact that every character shades into caricature, even the narrator?
The prose often goes over the top and stays there. Baker has gone all-in to capture Carlotta’s voice. This decision is admirable and risky. It is excessive, expressionistic. One will either love it or tire of it.