[Please note: I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange only for an honest and thorough review. This is (to the best of my ability) a spoiler-free review.]
Sarah Henstra’s debut young adult novel, Mad Miss Mimic, is the story of young woman growing up in the Victorian age and struggling to find her own voice. It’s not just because she is female or has an overbearing, critical sister or the developing hustle-and-bustle of a industrialized world. Leonora Sommerville suffers from what many in her high-class social circles term a “severe disfluency of speech”; she stutters when she speaks as herself, but can speak fluently and unrestrained when she fully mimics the voice or words of another person, whether she has just heard them or remembers them from years before. As her sister Christabel struggles to gain Leo a husband, a violent gang the Black Glove has taken to blowing up the streets of London. When Leo decides to uncover the truth of the matter for herself, she will find that danger is much closer to home than expected and will learn not only the strength and power of Mad Miss Mimic but also of herself.
The strongest aspect of Mad Miss Mimic is how impressive a young female character Leo is. Not only does she stand up for herself and others, but she develops as an individual throughout the book. When we first meet Leo, she is quiet, tightlipped, and easily beat into submission with her sister’s sharp words. She fears every social interaction and considers her speech impediment to be as awful, embarrassing, and mad as everyone else insists she should. As the book continues, however, Leo is faced with characters, truths, and challenges that will force her learn and grow as she faces off with the bad guys, find loves and, above all, empowers herself.
Leo is unique in that her characterization being highly focalized on a speech impediment. I don’t recall noticing such an impediment being mentioned in a character since Percy Jackson’s dyslexia in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians or Sherman Junior’s brain damage and seizures in The Absolutely Truth Diary of a Part-Time Indian. While Leo’s “disfluency” was portrayed in a way I didn’t expect, impediments of this kind rarely appear in children’s books, and a girl overcoming her speech difficulties was a refreshing aspect to Leo’s character, even when sheltered within a Victorian era mystery narrative.
Most interesting of all about Leo is that she is a woman, unlike most young adult female protagonists, who desperately seeks marriage and a husband. In a fascinating turn, her motives are wholly self -preserving and self-empowering: “Marriage to a man like that would mean independence, status, and a home of my own. More importantly it would mean invisibility, and therefore freedom from society’s constant gossip and judgment.” Leo prays desperately that Mr Francis Thornfax will have her, despite her speech impediment and tendency for inappropriate displays of “madness and uncontrollability.” Marriage — a relatively loveless one — means escape from under the domineering, almost-abusive criticism of her older sister and from judgmental public scrutiny. Leo seeks marriage not merely to be married, but to gain freedom and power for herself to be herself by herself.
Much of Leo’s story throughout Mad Miss Mimic challenges its characters and its readers to decipher the fine line — if there is one, as the story questions — between good and bad, true and untrue, power and tyranny. Several characters serve as moralistic reminders of the socioeconomic pitfalls of Victorian society, while Leo’s love interests, Mr Thornfax and Thomas Rampley, a renowned pickpocket-turned-doctor’s-assistant, serve as sharp foils to each other’s development. Leo struggles through when to speak up, when to protect others, when to defy social rules, as does Tom. On her tears through London, seeking out answers to violent crimes in the city and closer to home, Leo is faced with questions of morality and participation, class and safety, bravery and voice.
Although lauded by Quill and Quire as “a combination of Austen and Conan Doyle,” I would venture to add that Henstra’s debut is more Charles Dickens or even Elizabeth Gaskell than Austen. While it does play with elements of social graces and society’s ludicrous expectations, it also has quite a lot to say about class and socioeconomic mistreatment of the Victorian period. Addiction to and concern about opium runs rampant in Leo’s London and she witnesses firsthand both the hardship and the violence of the life of poor, homeless children of her city. The characters of Leo and Tom remind each other as well as readers to look about them and see who is less fortunate and in need of help.
My sole concern with Leo’s adventures was her own experience of sudden, almost unwarranted character development. Much of the more action-oriented events of the narrative seem very spur-of-the-moment while Leo’s own decisions or reactions are abrupt, with little explanation or portrayal of how she arrived to that response in her mind. (I read this book in less than 24 hours — just gobbled it right up — so this may be part of why I felt like I’d yet to understand all of Leo’s thought processes.) There are only a few instances of this unexpected character reaction and development, mostly focused on moments of heightened action or interpersonal interaction.
Henstra’s Mad Miss Mimic, the tale of a young Victorian woman coming into her own mind, heart, and voice, is the perfect young adult book for fans of Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy or even Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockhart trilogy. Full of mystery, dark streets, corsets, and handsome boys with backwards caps and dimples, Leo’s story promises intrigue and love, bravery and discovery, and a fight against the most pervasive bad in the world. Come for the promise of period drama, stay for the wily young woman making her own way and voice in the world.
Sarah Henstra’s Mad Miss Mimic will be released January 3, 2017, with Penguin Random House Canada.