“I hadn’t been south of City Hall Park since a massive slice of city had burned to the ground. The closer I came, the slower my feet went. Smoke assaulted my nostrils even though there wasn’t any, embers pulsating within the rubbish heaps. Eager hammers rang out like the pounding of the city’s pulse. Buildings- still intact, plastered with clothing and medical and political advertisements- grew ever more scorched. Occasional structures, formerly wooden, were missing entirely. And therein lay the source of the hammering: Irishmen, hundreds upon hundreds of Irishmen, were sweating through their shirts with nails in their teeth while a native or two looked on, drinking from a flask and calling out jeers.”
Historical fiction has always been a personal favorite genre, but the art of blending historical fact and intriguing fiction can be hit and miss. Lindsay Faye masters the challenges of the genre in The Gods of Gotham and presents an enthralling literary portrayal of the socially charged atmosphere of New York City during the 1840s. I actually purchased this novel a few months ago when my workplace chose it to be the company’s spotlight choice for the month. It sat on my shelf for some time as life took precedent, but when I finally sat down and read the first chapter I was hooked to the point where it came with me on a weekend away.
The story follows Timothy Wilde, a man who is as scared externally and internally as the city that surrounds him. When life takes a sudden turn beyond Tim’s control he finds himself joining the first ever official police force for a city that is ready to ignite, due to the daily arrivals of poor Irish people, discrimination against the local black communities, growing discontent of locals and the Catholics who aim to assist anyone less fortunate than them. When a young girl, nick-named Bird, stumbles across his path during his first shift, blood-soaked and adept at lying, the story takes an even darker twist and draws Tim deeper into the underworld of a city he is hardly eager to serve in the first place.
Faye’s writing completely immerses you in the historical period and antics of the time. The settings are vivid and must have been extensively researched; the attention to detail suggesting that historical research and knowledge are behind her ability to write with such richness, edged with an elaborate finesse. The best example is the use of a slang dubbed “flash” which is used by the individuals of questionable intentions, from newspaper boys to the thugs who man the streets. So often when we think of New York the hectic and skyscraper-littered image of modern day New York comes to mind, and so it’s refreshing to read about it before it became fully manufactured and to see the struggles people went through as it evolved to the city we know today. It’s often difficult to imagine that on your own, but the setting Faye provides is a great place to start.
One of the things I often find with historical fiction is that one element of the novel seems to be weaker than the other; if the setting is amazing, the characters often lack depth and vice versa. Thankfully, it’s not the case in this work. The characters are realistic, flawed but hopeful. The emotions many of them experience through the book are easily related to and the characters become as much a facet of the city as the buildings and streets they flitter between.
While this book is a descriptive dream for those who enjoy descriptive historical fiction, I can see how some people might feel overwhelmed by this book. Faye’s writing often becomes intense, flowing in a manner that verbally dances around what is actually taking place; for a reader who wants a concise story told without flowery prose, Faye’s work might prove to be a bit frustrating. However, I personally found it easy to lose myself in.
Steeped in historical depth with an intriguing plot and character turns, Faye takes a modern day mystery and revives it with a little historical flare. Numerous issues are addressed and the very core of the mystery stems from issues that were likely very realistic in the past. For people like me, who enjoy a realistic and well-researched historical fiction, The Gods of Gotham is a historical treat.
Devon – athousandbooklife
Other books by Linsday Faye: Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings by Dr. John H. Watson (2009)