Review: These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

When Josephine Montfort’s father is found dead in his study under suspicious circumstances, seventeen-year-old Jo is determined to get to the bottom of things. However, it’s 1890 and wealthy New York heiresses aren’t free to gad about the city in the dead of night, visiting morgues, shipping yards, insane asylums and houses of ill repute in search of clues. So if Jo’s going to discover the truth about her father’s death, she’ll have to be sneaky.

With the help of (devilishly handsome) reporter, Eddie Gallagher; assistant coroner, Oscar Rubin; and pickpocket, Fairy Fay, Jo follows a trail of evidence that leads her deep into New York’s underbelly. However, the mystery deepens with each new clue Jo uncovers: who is the tattooed man and why is he holding her father’s business partners to ransom? How is he related to the late Eleanor Owens and her untimely death years earlier at Darkbriar Asylum and to the shadowy figure following Eddie and Jo around the city? And what’s really going on at Van Houghton Shipping?

The more Jo discovers, the less appealing she finds her rigid world of balls and tea parties, where a woman is good for just two things: finding a suitable husband and bearing his children. Though her family is pushing her towards an engagement with her lifelong friend, Bram Aldrich, and though Bram is perfectly lovely and respectable, Jo begins dreaming of new life as a reporter with Eddie Gallagher at her side.

I picked up These Shallow Graves (Hotkey, Jul. 2016) thinking it would be a fun thrill ride and, for the most part, it delivers. The characters are the usual suspects: the feisty heiress seeking a life less ordinary; her penniless beau, who she absolutely should not love but does—instantly; the aristocratic boy she’s supposed to get gooey over but has long since relegated to the friend zone; the meddling uncle who’s sinister as all get out; the clueless mother who (inexplicably) never gets wise to the fact that her daughter sneaks out of the house on a nightly basis; the cast of quirky friends who are overburdened with struggles of their own, but drop everything to help the uber-privileged protagonist play Nancy Drew. However, they all had enough meat on their bones to hold my interest, and I found myself cheering for Jo as she turns her nose up at what’s expected of her and strides out of her mansion in search of the truth, even if she is a spoiled brat who needs to check her privilege.

The plot, too, is compelling, if somewhat predictable. Donnelly uses short chapters and scenes that end with minor cliffhangers to keep the tension taut and drive the story forward. It’s also a BIG story and, even if you guess where it’s headed, there’s fun to be had in seeing how Donnelly fits all the pieces together.

Donnelly also scores points for making female autonomy a key theme of These Shallow Graves. In her author’s note she writes:

Jo was fortunate in many ways, but she didn’t have the one thing she wanted most: freedom. So few young women of the 1890s did. Poor girls were expected to work, as early as possible. Wealthy ones were expected to marry, as well as possible.

It’s always good to see a female protagonist actively question the role society dictates for her and other women. But Donnelly’s real win is in the friendship she creates between Jo and Fay. In many ways, theirs is the most important relationship in the story—sorry, Eddie—and when Jo needs rescuing, it’s Fay who’s there for her. Every time. I’d be lying if I said the love triangle between Jo, Eddie and Bram doesn’t dominate much of the book, but there’s never a sense that Jo is thinking of leaving the upper echelons of Manhatten society just to be with Eddie—if she’s going to run away for anything, it’s to pursue a career as a journalist, a la Nellie Bly. If she snags Eddie in the process, that’ll be a bonus.

However, These Shallow Graves is loooong. Unnecessarily so. Donnelly’s a skilled storyteller and plotter, but this is the first of her books that I’ve read, and I got the sense that she doesn’t trust her reader. If there’s a golden rule of writing, it’s ‘show don’t tell’. Donnelly does both.

An example: fairly early in the story we learn that the tattooed man goes by the name Kich. After this is well established, Jo is snooping around someplace she definitely shouldn’t be and looks out the window to see:

A man in rough closes with tattoos on his face was standing in front of the bower. He must’ve sensed her, for he looked up, and his eyes, dark and vengeful met Jo’s.

It’s a great way to end a chapter. Except, Donnelly, worried perhaps that her reader has suffered a severe head injury since learning the tattooed man’s identity, goes on to add:

It was Kich. 

Thank you, Captain Obvious. Another time, when Jo and Eddie chase Kich to a skeezy hotel:

The smell of unwashed bodies and chamber pots was overwhelming. But there was an even worse stench underneath those—[wait for it]—the stench of despair.

Because normally a lack of plumbing is cause for joyful optimism. The whole book is full of such explainers, to the point that I found myself fantasising about running a red pen through every third sentence. There’s a lot of superfluous exposition, too, particularly regarding Jo’s lack of freedom. Again and again, Donnelly sledgehammers her reader:

In the opening pages, Jo wonders: ‘Why is it that boys get to do things and be things and girls only get to watch?’

Soon after Bram’s grandmother notes: ‘Girls, bitches, and mares … it all comes down to the same question: will she catch?’

When Bram inevitably proposes:

Jo saw her engagement to Bram for what it was: a business deal, and she was the commodity that had been traded. She didn’t love Bram. And he didn’t love her. He cared for her in his way, as she did for him. But it wasn’t love.  

And marriage:

Wasn’t a dance, or a party, or a summer flirtation. It was forever. … Mornings whiled away with a breakfast tray in bed. Luncheon with friends. Afternoons spent strolling in the park, or embroidering. That would be her life. Supper with Bram. And then, when the dull day was finally over, back to bed to make all those babies Grandmama wanted. Lovemaking, they called it. But shouldn’t one be in love to make love?

On and on it goes. Donnelly’s not wrong, but it’s heavy-handed and, rather than enlightening the reader, this over-explaining serves only to slow the plot.

In short, These Shallow Graves is a good YA thriller that might have been great, were it one hundred pages shorter, but definitely worth a read if you’re looking for an absorbing page-turner.

Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of These Shallow Graves in exchange for an honest review. 

See These Shallow Graves on Goodreads and purchase through Book Depository or Booktopia

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