Book Review: The Gifts // Liz Hyder

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The Gifts is a novel set in London during the early 1840s. It is about a group of unrelated women who suddenly grow a pair of wings each, and how their stories become unfortunately interwoven as they attract the attention of Edward Meake. He is a scientist, who is envious of his wildly successful best friend as he waits for his own medical breakthrough. When he hears of potential “fallen angels”, he becomes obsessed with achieving fame through this miraculous discovery, no matter the cost. Even if it means capturing and exploiting these unsuspecting women.

The aspect of the book that I found the most fascinating was the examination of a man becoming consumed by scientific ambition, as it reminded me of characters from Gothic literature like Victor Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll. However, unlike Victorian stories, which are told from a male character’s perspective, Hyder’s novel features multiple female protagonists. Women are not just side characters or doting wives in this book; their choices and experiences are central to the plot. It is also interesting to consider that both The Gifts and Frankenstein, two novels about the consequences of the actions of overly ambitious men, are written by women. In the book, we see how the female characters are merely collateral damage in Edward’s eyes, objects which he can use to improve his own standing in society.

Despite being told from so many different perspectives, the use of multiple narrators never feels confusing or overbearing. In fact, it enhances the narrative by creating suspense and introducing us to a wealth of characters who would have been airbrushed from literature actually produced in 1840s, from the daughter of a freed slave whose aspirations to become a botanist aren’t taken seriously by her male counterparts, to a young woman who is due to give birth outside of wedlock, forcing her to try to make a living for herself in a rundown region of London.

There is no doubt that this is a feminist novel, as the protagonists are women who transcend the boundaries placed upon them by the patriarchy. At the end of the book, Hyder explains the historical context of the novel and the constraints placed upon women at the time. Hyder believed that it was integral to portray these female characters as both pioneers in their fields and vulnerable individuals who struggled to navigate their role within society.

Additionally, the story should not be dismissed as being part of the fantasy genre. Despite featuring elements of magical realism, like the existence of angels and women who miraculously sprout wings from their backs, these do not detract from the seriousness of the themes Hyder discusses. The majority of the book has a visceral and gritty truthfulness to it, as the characters battle grief, betrayal and envy – all of which are very real emotions – amidst the backdrop of a grimy, industrialising city.

To conclude, The Gifts is one of the best contemporary novels I have read in a long time. Regardless of whether you enjoy reading historical fiction or not, its beautiful writing style, bursting with exquisite descriptions of characters and setting, will have you hooked until the last sentence. I would highly recommend this book to everyone because of its suspenseful plot and its poignant observations on issues that are still prevalent in today’s society.

Words by Tilda Gladwell

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