These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

Received from NetGalley for review.

’If you’re going to bury the past, bury it deep, girl. Shallow graves always give up their dead.’

These Shallow Graves is a richly described historical tale of a wealthy man’s death, his daughter’s investigation, and forbidden romance, all interlaced with the plight of women in 1890’s New York.

The story mainly focuses on Josephine Montfort, seventeen year old daughter of the recently deceased Charles Montfort, and her efforts to solve her father’s death and the subsequent deaths of his colleagues; she is intelligent and curious – undesirable traits from a woman of society at the time – and does not believe the story that her father would kill himself. She enlists the help of rugged journalist, Eddie Gallagher, who wants to use the story to further his career, and, naturally, they find themselves falling for each other. Possible murder, forbidden love, and the feminist cause are combined to make a fun, interesting, and sometimes gut wrenching, story.

Donnelly has brought late 1800’s New York to life in this story; the setting and atmosphere felt very real, and I was immediately transported to a different time and place whilst reading. The descriptions are very vivid, and I found the underlying story of the treatment of women fascinating – there is a definite focus on how women were treated and expected to behave, focusing on both the privileged lives of the rich and the horrendous lives of the poor, and these aspects were usually more interesting to me than the murder mystery aspect of the story. The characters are all well written and developed; no one is there for the sake of it, as they all add to the story. My only real complaint is that the book felt too long; the mystery surrounding Charles’ death, and subsequent mysteries that start to unfold, dragged on towards the end.

Jo is the leading lady of this book, and although she could be rather irritating and naïve at times, I did like her feistiness and bravery. As a young woman in 1890 she is expected to marry, produce children, and look pretty, but this isn’t what she wants, certainly not at seventeen. She admires Nellie Bly and wants to write hard hitting journalism, revealing the terrible conditions of the poor, and she realises through her investigations with Eddie just how terrible some people have it; she experiences the poor and destitute, the desperate and the mad. She was almost painfully naïve at times, unable to put two and two together when seeing half naked women in brothels, which may have been true for young girls of the time but still read as a little unbelievable. I did enjoy her conviction and dedication in finding out the truth about her father, although I do wish she had employed some common sense at times – there’s no point banging on about your reputation all the time if you’re going to visit morgues and brothels with an older man beneath your social circle. Her actions often seemed hypocritical because of this – keeping up appearances in the day and running around with Eddie at night at every opportunity – but I could see why she did it.

The other characters were well written, although only a few really stood out to me – namely Eddie, Oscar, trainee doctor and morgue worker, and Fay, a pickpocket. I found Jo’s times spent with Eddie and Oscar brilliant to read for widely different reasons; Eddie as the dark and interesting love interesting, and Oscar as a very useful and to the point friend. Eddie had the typical guy-you-should-avoid vibe, all tall and dark and mysterious, but I really liked him – he is so kind and caring underneath his rough exterior, looking out for Jo and protecting her when she chased leads with him (much to his dismay). Their relationship was fairly predictable, but I liked the scandal and danger that came with it, and how utterly ridiculous they could be about misconstrued situations. Fay was probably the best character in the book and reminded me of the Artful Dodger, without the luxury of being born a boy. She is truly tough, but has a heart of gold, and I felt so sorry for her being stuck in a life she couldn’t escape from.

Overall, a good historical romance and murder mystery, with some outstanding characters. Some moments in this book really pull at your heart and soul, knowing that some people did lead such hate and fear filled lives, and the characters get under your skin in the best possible way.

Read: November 9th-21st 2015

4/5 stars


2 thoughts on “These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

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