Edith Holler

Written by Edward Carey
Review by Kristen McDermott

This fascinating, dreamlike novel is hard to categorize. Set in 1901 Norwich, England, this penny-dreadful-inspired tale of haunted theaters, murderous stepmothers, cannibalism, ghosts, and disguises takes place almost entirely inside the mind of a precocious pre-teen girl. Edith Holler has lived her entire life within the confines of the venerable Holler Theatre, kept there by her superstitious theatrical family because of a mad aunt’s curse. Believing she could never leave the building without causing its immediate destruction, the sickly child turns to books for a window into the outside world, becoming an expert on the history of her beloved Norwich as well as the folklore that suggests its main export, the sweet, blood-red Beetle Spread, contains missing children as its main ingredient. When she decides to write a play about the wicked history of Beetle Spread (and the family that owns its factory), all hell literally begins to break loose.

This summary doesn’t do justice to the hallucinatory, madcap nature of Carey’s prose and the power of Edith’s point of view. Her resourcefulness and courage force us to take her version of the sinister forces threatening her beloved home at face value. The meticulously researched narrative includes the author’s illustrations of the outlandish theater folk, which are actually made mostly unnecessary by the vividness of Carey’s descriptions. Because Edith’s imagination is so mesmerizing, it’s hard to be certain whether this novel is historical fantasy or whether we are as taken in by Edith’s fantasies as the other characters are. Either way, the book is full of surprises and often-hilarious observations about the many layers of history even the most ordinary of towns can perch upon.