This engrossing novel is a tonic for the spirits. I enjoyed it so much I was tempted to just jot down a bunch of superlatives and call it a review; words like wonderful, exuberant, exhilarating and brilliant and perhaps add some exclamation marks to underline the point!! It’s not that Little is a feel-good novel, it’s not as simple as that. There is real substance here in this absorbing account of a life – warts and all (love and loss, hardship and tragedy). The little girl, known as Marie, became Madame Tussaud, we all know about the Baker Street museum, but prior to that she lived an eventful life in extraordinary times. Her experiences were both exciting and dangerous, and as reimagined here, also poignant and gripping. Little is clearly a labour of love, Carey’s passion for his subject shines out. This richly detailed novel should be savoured not quaffed – not so easy as it is a page turner, you won’t want to put down. Little deserves to be widely read and I can see it featuring on many ‘books of the year’ lists in a couple of months time.
The first thing you notice is that Little is a beautifully packaged book, I wouldn’t normally comment on that, but it matters because it’s part of the enjoyment of the novel. The artwork is an integral part of the story telling and adds to the reading pleasure. Edward Carey is an artist as well as a writer. The illustrations, barring a portrait of Little, are attributed to Marie, that is Anne-Marie Grosholtz, also nicknamed ‘Little’, the future Madame Tussaud. This novel feels and looks good, even before you settle down to read the story.
Little is fashioned like an 18th century novel. The title page lays out in broad strokes the story of Marie (as good an intro as you could wish for). Each chapter is prefaced by a brief description of its content, beginning with: “In which I am born and in which I describe my mother and father.” It’s instantly endearing but also clever because this is a subversive tale, certainly a pastiche but also very modern. The story of Marie is beguiling, one of those rare novels that feels short at 450+ pages. Little is a cornucopia of life’s wonder: cruelty, love, terror, heartbreak, security, wealth, poverty and loss.
Little is a sensual read, subtly affecting and compassionate, at times uproariously funny and more than passing strange too. Anne-Marie Grosholtz is a superb creation, a perceptive and observant narrator, even from an impossibly early age but that doesn’t matter one bit. She is wilful and possessed of an inner strength that people under estimate due to her stature. Marie is skilful in her art, determined and brave. She is compassionate and loyal to the point of personal danger. Although she ends up in Baker Street a success at the end of the novel, this is the tale of her life in the storm before the calm. From wretched peasant beginnings in a small Alsace village to the Palace of Versailles and then life under the “Terror”, literally facing the threat of the guillotine.
Marie was a weak baby, not expected to survive, she was little, no more than 4’ 8” as an adult. She tells us that she was possessed of her mother’s nose and her father’s chin, both prominent (inclined to grow toward each other), the cause of much unkind comment as she grew up. Her father was a soldier, away at war until the day he was invalided out of the army. Confined to a wheelchair and wearing a silver moulded chin plate in place of the mandible the cannon blew away. Thereby denying Anne-Marie the clear memory of her similarity to her father or perhaps enabling her to fantasise about the family resemblance. Her father did not survive long and she moved with her mother to Berne as a servant to a young doctor, a gifted creator of likenesses and body parts formed in Chinese wax. Tragedy strikes again, her mother commits suicide, leaving the six year old with the shy and distant young doctor. Marie is fascinated by Dr Curtius’s work. When he is asked why he wants to take the girl on after her mother’s death he replies: “She isn’t frightened”. Most people find the face masks scary. Marie and Curtius flee to Paris to avoid his debts. The man who has invited Curtius to Paris warns: “You had better succeed then, because if you don’t there shall be two failed starving people, not one.”
Marie has learned to draw, to observe keenly and she becomes accomplished in the technical skills of casting a mould, so she is disappointed to be treated like a maid by the new landlady. Dr. Curtius will not stand up for her: “The rude faced serving child”. Marie never gives up on her ambition to follow in her master’s footsteps, it’s clear she has a gift. Curtius is a success, the famous come, among them Mesmer and Ben Franklin. Then Marie is taken to the palace at Versailles to teach art to young Elizabeth Philippine Marie Hélène Bourbon, sister to the king. This is both good and bad; it is an adventure but her money goes to her master and she has to sleep in a cupboard, to be close to Elisabeth. Revolution is coming and no one who has any connection to the royal family is safe….
Clearly this is fiction but I’m not convinced that Madame Tussaud’s real memoir is any less boastful. Exaggeration aside this is a credible tale and, of course, that is part of Marie’s character. The descriptions of life at the time, the sights and sounds of the noisy, dirty city are pitch perfect. The beautiful madness of revolution and the tragic aftermath, the stench and fear of a communal death cell, the violence of the crowd (stealing the wax heads to put on poles and run through the street). All the colourful life of the rich and the poor, powerful and powerless are here.
Little is familiar and yet original. Reading this novel is thought provoking and so much fun, truly invigorating. I feel energised by the experience, you will be too.
Paul Burke 5/5
Little by Edward Carey
Aardvark Bureau 9781910709399 hbk Oct 2018