Little by Edward Carey

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Reviewed by Simon

Edward Carey Little

The name Madame Tussaud is familiar to most of us – particularly to anybody who has been a tourist in London, and visited the waxwork museum that bears her name. You can also, it turns out, witness branches of Madame Tussaud’s in Amsterdam, Beijing, Bangkok, Berlin, Blackpool, Hollywood, Hong Kong, Las Vegas, New Delhi, New York City, Orlando, San Francisco, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, Vienna, and Washington DC. She has left her mark on the world – but have you ever thought about the life of the real Madame Tussaud?

I have to admit that I didn’t even know for sure that Madame Tussaud was a real person, but Edward Carey’s novel has changed all that. Taking Marie Grosholtz as his subject, he turns his quirky eye upon the life of a low-born servant whose life took some of the most unexpected twists imaginable. And it’s all rather brilliant.

In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact year in which the melody for ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761, whilst the city of Paris people at their salons told tales of beasts in castles and men with blue beards and beauties that would not wake and cats in boots and slippers made of glass and youngest children with tufts in their hair and daughters wrapped in donkey skin, and whilst in London people at their clubs discussed the coronation of King George III and Queen Charlotte: many miles away from all this activity, in a small village in Alsace, in the presence of a ruddy midwife, two village maids, and a terrified mother, was born a certain undersized baby.

This is the opening paragraph – and, indeed, the opening sentence. But fear not – the whole book is not told in sentences of this length, though Carey does expertly wield a prose style that gives a good flavour of the 18th century without being in thrall to inflexible accuracy. And our heroine is Marie the child who, because of her mother’s poverty, finds work for Doctor Curtius. He is a shy, anxious doctor who is obsessed with the human anatomy, and reproduces body parts in wax – c.f. the illustrations that Carey dots throughout the book, and draws for the cover. It is he that gives Marie her nickname, and thus the title to the book.

“She’s a little exclamation. A little protest. A little insult. In any case, a little something. Yes, I prefer Little. Little is what I name her.”

Marie becomes part of this curious household – that gets more curious, and more repressive, when Curtius’s house is added to by an overbearing widow and her oppressed son. The widow oppresses more than just her son – wanting to ensure that Marie doesn’t get ideas about her station. She is gradually isolated in the kitchen, away from the rest of the family, and is forbidden from helping with the wax modelling that she so enjoys.

I was instructed to unwrap the wax head of me and hold it up beside my own. I closed my eyes to increase the effect. There was an unhappy noise. Then the widow exclaimed, and Mercier translated: “But they are the same!”

“Yes, oh yes,” said Curtius, very proud, clapping.

“How did you do that?” she asked.

“It is my business.”

“And you can do it with anyone,” she demanded, “or just with her?”

“Anyone, anything,” my master said, “provided there are surfaces.”

Next follows an interlude where she is a companion to the Princess Elisabeth, King Louis XVI’s sister; during this period, she lives in a cupboard. I have no idea if this is true, but it fits in perfectly with Carey’s subtly distorted view of the world – where everything is exaggerated just enough to reveal its intrinsic truth.

I shan’t spoil the rest of the plot, but the period might have clued you in to the fact that the French Revolution is likely to rear its head and affect the story – which it does, in easily the most engaging depiction of this historical enormity that I have ever read.

Knowing nothing about Madame Tussaud, I can’t vouch for how much of this novel is accurate – but it is decidedly a novel, not a biography, so I don’t much mind if Carey took liberties. But what I do know is that Carey’s eccentric writing fits perfectly with this bizarre story. I’ve loved Carey’s novels for many years – well, the only two he’d written previously, Alva & Irva and Observatory Mansion. One is set in a strange world and one features a criminally odd protagonist, and I wasn’t sure how this writing persona would translate to a historical novel based on real life – but in Little, Carey appears to have found an actual person strange enough to match his particular writerly talents. Little is ambitious, strange, captivating, and exceptional.

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Edward Carey, Little (Aardvark Bureau, 2018) ISBN 978-1910709399, hardback, 384 pages.

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