Martini Henry is the second novel by author and actress Sara Crowe, and one that has been on my radar since the fun reading at a Transworld Showcase last year. While I hadn't read the first novel, Campari for Breakfast, I was told that this one could be read as a stand alone and so I was very keen to take part in the blog tour when the opportunity arose.
Sue Bowl is an aspiring journalist. 18-years-old and fresh off a writing course she's hungry for an internship at the local paper while she's working on her dissertation and she tries to be more Russian in her writing, one of the biggest pointers she'd been given during her course.
At the same time she's reading a 3,000 page long tome titled For the Concern of the Rich and Poor, as there are links with Green Place, the mansion she lives in with her aunt and an assortment of lodgers, including three admirals. But things don't go according to plan for Sue and she has to look at a Plan B to gain some much-needed income. And when the one stable thing in her life, her boyfriend Joe, starts unraveling too, everything Sue has been building up since the loss of her mother a year prior comes tumbling down.
I thought Martini Henry was going to a a laugh a minute, but it wasn't really. There were humourous moments, sure, but it wasn't as "hilarious" or "very, very funny" as the back cover quotes or the reading last year at the Showcase made it seem. Instead it was a far more mature coming-of-age novel where the eloquent main character often seemed wise beyond her years because of her impeccable way with words.
Her flowery writing could've of course be attributed to her journalistic aspirations, but then her coursework and newspaper submissions read a lot more inexperienced than her diary entries. The wise-beyond-her-years diary pages could've made Sue look very unrealistic, as her writing did often seem like author Sara Crowe showing her readers how descriptive she could be, but then Sue made some very foolish decisions, which certainly her showed her age.
Ultimately this was very much a book of two halves, however, and while technically speaking Sue was the protagonist as we read her diary entries and the excerpts she creates from the 3,000 page long For the Concern of the Rich and Poor, it was actually the story of the London Taylor's journey from rags to riches which Sue was uncovering within this novel that was the more engaging one to me.
His was an epic tale of coming from absolutely nothing and how, when reflecting upon his life in old age, this completely turned around because of kindness and meeting the right people on his path. No matter what adversities London faces, he remains true to himself and doesn't became hateful towards those treating him and the people he cares about unfairly, which he could've so easily done as it by no means was an easy journey he was on.
This is a story that shows some of the worst sides of the social divide in the 19th century, and it is written in such an engaging, fascinating and even adventurous way that I felt myself being completely swept away by these parts of Martini Henry. Every time we returned back to the 1980s and Sue I felt a pang of impatience as I wanted to learn more about London and how his life would turn out.
That isn't to say that I want to completely dismiss Sue's story, as that had elements that kept me hooked on reading it too, but in her case it was actually the people surrounding her, such as Aunt Coral and Joe, that I felt most invested in and I wanted to learn more about. And of course the 80s setting, which while not all out neon-coloured leggings and back-combed hair, still had some fun little nods to the decade fashion forgot.
It is Sue's story I picked Martini Henry up for, but it's London's story that made me stay. This is a dual time-frame narrative with an interesting twist as instead of focusing on adults connected by a romantic tragedy and war, they are two coming-of-age tales and didn't include a battle until a brief mention at the very end. While this is perhaps not a comedy novel with a laugh on every page, it is a compelling read, especially when London's tale started unfolding and echoing events in Sue's present time.
If you've already read and enjoyed Campari for Breakfast then Martini Henry is undoubtedly a novel you'll love reading to be reunited with Sue, Joe, Aunt Carol, and the gang. If you're not yet familiar with them but you like an eclectic cast of characters, a coming-of-age tale set amid the fashion faux pas of the 1980s, and a fascinating history lesson to boot, then this will be a right up your alley too.
Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.
Martini Henry is published by Transworld and you can buy your copy from Foyles or your own preferred retailer.