The Martian Girl

Written by Andrew Martin
Review by Douglas Kemp

Jean Beckett is researching the life of the late 19th-century London musical hall artiste Kate French. She plans to put on a stage play about her life, but her work transmogrifies into something more like a novel as she uses her imagination to understand this enigmatic woman. Kate French is the eponymous Martian Girl, and had a successful mind-reading music hall act with her staid and unattractive partner, Joseph Draper. This (as even such acts today still are) is based upon on an elaborate system of verbal cues that Draper provides to the blindfolded Kate on the stage. In her contemporary life, Jean’s life is made more complicated by her having a murderous psychopathic retired barrister as a lover named Coates – we never learn his first name. The author skilfully avoids making him as ludicrous or unfeasible as it appears. While Jean’s relationship with Coates deteriorates and the reader perceives the danger she (and Coates’ wife) is facing with her increasingly unstable lover, back in 1898 Kate French also faces a degree of danger as her partnership with the unpleasant Draper takes off and she becomes a successful performer with their mind-reading act. Draper is concerned that she may be able to read his mind, and all that lies therein!

This is an absorbing and well-written story, with rounded and engaging characters. Life in the late 19th-century English music hall is portrayed capably and believably. My only criticism is that the conclusion is a little lame and rather rushed, and the introduction of a metafictional device does not add greatly to the outcome.