Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The Fair Fight - Anna Freeman - Fabulous historical fiction

From the Publishers description (via Goodreads)

For fans of Sarah Waters and THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE, a vibrant tale of female boxers and their scheming patrons in 18th-century Bristol.

Some call the prize ring a nursery for vice . . .

Born into a brothel, Ruth's future looks bleak until she catches the eye of Mr Dryer. A rich Bristol merchant and enthusiast of the ring, he trains gutsy Ruth as a puglist. Soon she rules the blood-spattered sawdust at the infamous Hatchet Inn.

Dryer's wife Charlotte lives in the shadows. A grieving orphan, she hides away, scarred by smallpox, ignored by Dryer, and engaged in dangerous mind games with her brother.

When Dryer sidelines Ruth after a disastrous fight, and focuses on training her husband Tom, Charlotte presents Ruth with an extraordinary proposition. As the tension mounts before Tom's Championship fight, two worlds collide with electrifying consequences.

THE FAIR FIGHT will take you from a filthy brothel to the finest houses in the town, from the world of street-fighters to the world of champions. Alive with the smells and the sounds of the streets, it is a raucous, intoxicating tale of courage, reinvention and fighting your way to the top.

My thoughts ...

Oh my goodness what a tantalizingly excellent read this was. 
I'm always a little wary of books which profess to be "perfect for fans of ..." any of my favourite books, and as both The Crimson Petal and the White and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters are firmly in my top ten of all time I was excited, yet a touch sceptical about reading this brand new debut title.

I was swept into 18th century Bristol immediately by the authors consummate writing skill. The book's written in first person from the alternating viewpoints of Ruth the female fighter, or pugilist, brought up in a brothel, known as the convent, with her very dissimilar sister Dora, who quickly turns to the life of prostitution which Ruth will do anything to avoid, including climbing into the boxing ring to be punched almost senseless by a man twice her size! 

We also follow the life of George, whose tale begins at boarding school when he begins a lifelong, lamentable relationship with the rather needy Perry, whose life we also follow. Narrated by his sister Charlotte, scarred by smallpox and my favourite character by far. Watching her evolve and develop fortitude was rewarding and brilliant and there was one action she took where I literally cheered out aloud - read the book and I bet you'll give her a round of applause too.

I was a little worried that I wouldn't like the focus on female pugilism, but far from it, the topic was unique and original - something difficult to come across in historical fiction and made me want to rush out and begin thrashing the living daylights out of some poor soul !!

I'm delighted to admit the way the book is written does bear strong similarities to the Crimson Petal, in the sheer readability and deep sense of involvement, coupled with the gritty authenticity of the contrast of life for those living at the lower end of the social scale and those deemed "respectable" by society.

As already mentioned, I loved Charlottes character, there are some excellent, likeable secondary characters, Henry and Tom, to name just a couple and even the highly disagreeable people are likeable in their realism and are almost Dickensian caricatures, with quirks, flaws and foibles, the despicable Dora made me quake with rage and I wanted to shake Perry out of his self pity.

I rapidly became deeply involved with the lives of these disparate characters brought together against normal odds, I was immersed in the 18th century world of pugilism, gambling, immorality, loneliness and greed. I held my breath so many times I'm surprised I can now breathe without the aid of an oxygen tent.

And the ending, sheer perfection, although I actually turned the page expecting a few more words, then turned back re-read the last sentence and thought - BRILLIANT. Bravo Anna, this is an epic work of historical fiction I loved reading.

My grateful thanks to Orion books who published it and for making it available through Netgalley who provided my review copy.

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