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Review: The Peculiarities, by David Liss
Tachyon, 2021. 325 pp. $18

London, 1899. Thomas Thresher, twenty-three, nominal scion of the noted banking family of that name, should consider himself fortunate, with a bright future to look forward to. But Thomas feels no hope for anything, present or future. His cruel, tyrannical brother, Walter, the bank’s governor, insists that Thomas serve as a clerk, performing pointless tasks, from which he learns nothing, nor is he meant to, a Dickensian touch. Further, Walter demands that he marry a young woman he’s never seen — a Jewess, no less, an idea that repels him.

But Thomas finds it hard to feel sorry for himself, or to feel much of anything, because Walter has manipulated him all his life and discarded him as worthless — except to do his bidding, as with the strange marriage, for no reason Thomas can fathom. He’s allowed no will or character of his own, and you can see the effects.

What’s more, London itself has changed. Violent fogs that slither like giant, amorphous reptiles bludgeon people to death. Thomas has seen this, but there are other horrors he’s only read about:

The more lurid newspapers published stories of vampires and werewolves, of women giving birth to rabbits, and houses rendered uninhabitable by ghosts. He has read of people possessed by spirits and living men whose own spirits have become trapped in horses, in furnishings, in articles of clothing. There are horrible transformations and mutilations. Things that should not be, if these stories are to be believed, have become not quite commonplace but hardly rare.
Thomas read it all with a fair amount of skepticism until the first leaf sprouted below his right nipple.

These abnormalities and others go by the name of Peculiarities, and in stereotypical British fashion, nobody talks about them. Nobody in polite society, anyway, for the worst afflictions beset the lower classes predominantly, a concept Thomas is loath to accept when his purported fiancée, Esther Feldstein, tells him so.

But you know that Thomas must take her seriously, sooner or later, not least because the bank seems implicated in some way — the impenetrable institution, a Dickensian theme. At the same time, he can accomplish nothing unless he takes himself seriously too, a difficult task when he has been ground under his family’s heel.

His progression makes terrific reading; I’m reminded again of Dickens, say, Pip in Great Expectations. You don’t often see a thriller with such an intricate, forceful character arc, let alone a story that also has enough “no — and furthermore” energy to power a small city. Plenty happens in The Peculiarities, but this is a character-driven novel that explores every emotional transition, and that’s why you care.

Kabbala, a mystical belief system within Judaism, figures in The Peculiarities. Here, a kabbalistic representation of the Tree of Life (courtesy Thomazzo, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

The story invokes magic, as you might have guessed, and the plot revolves around the power it confers. But though characters attempt to cast spells, the magic here, as Liss states in the text and repeats in an afterword, doesn’t operate in defiance of natural laws. Rather, it depends on natural laws “previously hidden or generally unknown.” The distinction will become clearer if you read the novel, which I recommend, but I’ll give you one hint. Thomas was on the way toward becoming a first-rate mathematician at Trinity College, Cambridge, until Walter forced him to quit his studies. The skill comes in handy.

Note too the context of the so-called Peculiarities. That the London fog has become deadly violent, instead of the passive killer known to history, suggests environmental disaster writ large. That it attacks poor neighborhoods more often than others reflects a fact reckoned with today but not during the Victorian Age, and that Thomas at first refuses to accept the evidence rings all too true.

How ironic that he’s turning into a tree, as though the forests are taking vengeance for human depredation. And the births of “rabbit children” represent two themes, natal defects from industrial poisons and the attack on reproductive rights. Surely, Liss intends to criticize capitalism in its unbridled state—consider that the central institution here is Thresher’s Bank.

At once a coming-of-age story, a thriller, and historical fantasy, The Peculiarities has much to offer. The plot twists like an eel, sometimes in melodramatic fashion, with one incredible revelation after another. But the prose is beautiful and lucid, and the characters never strike attitudes, as they might in a full-fledged melodrama. Esther proves more than a match for Thomas, one of several friends with whom he never would have bothered had he not been afflicted and chosen to embark on a journey of discovery.

My regular readers know I avoid historical fantasy, but such is my admiration for Liss’s previous books, most notably A Conspiracy of Paper (capitalism, again), that I grabbed this novel off the shelf. The results confirm my trust, and I suspect they will earn yours.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.