by Eloise Williams
1899. All Nansi knows is that her mother disappeared on the day she was fished out of Cardiff docks. She can't remember anything else. Now, with no other family to turn to, she works for Sid at the Empire Theatre, sometimes legally, sometimes thieving, trying to earn enough money to hire a detective to find her mother.
Everything changes when Constance and Violet join the theatre, both with their own dark secrets. Nansi is forced to be part of Violet's crooked psychic act. But it's when Constance recognises her, and realises who her mother must be, that Nansi's world is turned upside down forever. She is soon on the run for her life and she will have to risk everything if she's going to find the truth.
In Eloise Williams' wild, desperate world, with its unforgettable cast of characters, Nansi is a brave, complex heroine who will break your heart and make you cheer.
It's been the longest time since I read any Middle Grade and Gaslight has been on my radar for a while now after I kept seeing it everywhere last year. Firefly Press is a Cardiff-based publisher of MG and YA fiction, set up by a lovely lady I worked with during my first job in publishing, so I'm really pleased I finally picked up one of the Press's books and Gaslight has definitely reawakened my love for MG and made me want to pick up more from Firefly Press in future.
As you all know I love my historical fiction and, when it comes to MG historical fiction, the Victorian era is such a wonderful introduction to historical fiction and to history - especially as, in the UK at least, the Victorian era is usually touched upon in primary school. What I particularly enjoyed about Gaslight, though, is that it's set in Victorian Cardiff rather than London or even Edinburgh, which are both cities far more commonly explored in Victorian era novels. I lived in Wales for a few years and worked in Cardiff for two of those years, so I found it really immersive to be pulled into a story that mentioned landmarks I'm familiar with in a more personal way than the typical mentions of Big Ben or Buckingham Palace.
Our heroine Nansi lives and works for Sid in Cardiff's Empire Theatre, unable to remember anything about her early childhood or what happened to her beloved mother before she was pulled out of Cardiff docks. She's not the only one who's found herself working for Sid with nowhere else to go; Sid is something of a Fagin-esque character, but personally I find Fagin far more likeable. Nansi is a lot of fun to follow around, her character really jumps off the page, and Gaslight feels like a tip of the hat to Dickensian novels such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.
But because we have a leading lady rather than a young boy, there were elements of Gaslight that reminded me of Sarah Waters' Fingersmith, particularly as Nansi is privy to the darker underbelly of Victorian society. Sid isn't always sinister, there are times when he seems like something of a pantomime villain, but Eloise Williams isn't afraid to go to some dark places and there was one scene in particular where Sid was genuinely frightening and he felt like a real threat. His relationship with Nansi was written really well, too; she read like a young girl who'd grown up learning how to handle him depending on his various moods, meaning Nansi is a survivor in every sense of the word.
What I was most pleasantly surprised by was that Nansi's search for her missing mother didn't irritate me. That makes me sound like a stone-hearted trout, I know, but often when a character really wants something, particularly in fiction aimed at younger readers, we hear about that desire and nothing else and the story soon grows boring and repetitive. I thought Williams balanced Nansi's search for her mother really well with the rest of the novel, so it kept moving forward and I felt as though we learned something new every time Nansi mentioned her mother.
That being said, it was the pacing in the end that prevented me from giving Gaslight more than three stars. That's not a bad rating - I liked this novel a lot and whether you're a child or an older reader who enjoys MG I'd definitely recommend this novel (as long as, if you're a younger reader, you're comfortable with the darker elements) - but it definitely could have been higher if I hadn't felt as though the second half of the novel was a lot more rushed than the first half. Everything was solved a little too easily for my liking, and considering the risks Williams took earlier in the novel the ending lacked the same grit that the beginning had. And considering everything he does, I don't think Sid really got his comeuppance in the end.
If you're in the mood for some MG then Gaslight is definitely one I'd recommend, especially if you'd like to try some UK-based MG that isn't set in England!