"When I look back on that eventful night now, all this seems trivial. For even as we lived our little lives and fought our petty battles, death stalked the city, and soon would ride triumphant through the streets."
I'm not sure what exactly encouraged me to want to read 'The Strange Adventures of H' by Sarah Burton, as it's certainly a historical fiction novel.. which is something I typically avoid. What's more.. there's no supernatural or fantastical element that might normally turn my head, yet in hindsight.. I'm glad I gave it a chance.
The story follows an orphaned girl simply known as H, who along with her sister Evelyn, is sent to live with their aunt in London. The sisters are incredibly close and Aunt Madge is an endearingly free-spirited widow who seems to adore them.
Happy in their lot, possibly happier than they were before they became orphans, things take a dark turn when their cousin assaults H and an epidemic of the plague ravages the city. Those she loves, either too far removed or taken from her, H is cast into the streets during a great exodus of those hoping to get beyond the disease's reach.
Alone, pregnant, and with no money with which to survive, she's forced to do whatever she can to earn a living.
"..I thought this must be what Hell is like. Not hot and full of pain and confusion, but cool and grey and empty, where you are shut out of everywhere, yet cannot leave."
Honestly, this doesn't read at all like a story. There's no discernable plot exactly, just a series of horrific events, though that isn't a bad thing. It's more of a fictional memoir chronicling the life of a young woman as she experiences some of the lowest days imaginable, some of the greatest betrayals and losses a heart can bear, and some moments of great joy that seem to exist at times.. only to give her hope until the next crushing disappointment.
Despite the fact it's a period piece, most of the language avoids that flowery styling I normally dislike, as it deals with people considered common and the dialects of their status. There's plenty enough modern wording thrown in there that I didn't mind it all that much and in truth, I was too engrossed in what was going to happen to H.. to put the book down anyway.
There were some characters I dearly loved. Godfrey was spectacular, Aunt Madge was a warm, rebellious creature, Fredrick and Charlie filled their pages with a kindness and gentleness that was sorely needed to offset all the horrible events happening around H, and certainly Jasper.. while silly as can be.. managed to charm me nonetheless.
Both the time period and historical events that took place throughout the tale, were intricately detailed. Burton painted an appropriately somber image of the tragedy and despair devastating those left behind to struggle through the plague, while the wealthy often just picked up and left.. heading off to safer locales. The result of course being even more unkindness as their society devolves into a primarily 'every person for themselves' situation. Therein lies a parallel not lost on me as we have in some cases watched similar things take place in recent months.
I give the author credit for not simply sinking into the more unpleasant human nature that can rise to the surface in these situations. There's still representation here for those who would help their fellow, whether or not it be in their own best interest.. and poor H is one of those. But overall things are rather grim and sometimes the things people tell themselves to justify their behavior is shocking.
It's a great read though, I recommend it if you're not likely to be overwhelmed by the desperation many of the characters find themselves in. There are some triggers here to be considered, especially in regards to violence towards women and children, even up to loss of life in some cases.. but if you can handle that, it's a richly pain-filled story painted in fine strokes, so as nothing is glossed over.