Freaks, gore, ghosts and tender love


Freaks, gore, ghosts and tender love

LINZA DE JAGER is curiosity hunter when it comes to books and she was smitten with a debut novel.


THIS book is like a strong curry. It leaves me gasping for adjectives. The Knowing is set in the Victorian era in the infamous Five Points slum of New York City. It's a place of poverty, prostitution and gangs. Schooling is absent and food is scarce. The place stinks and it's sinking into the ground, the reader learns. It's a dung heap, but it's also the place where love will blossom.

When the clairvoyant tattoo artist Flora encounters the dwarf Minnie (whose stage name is Wilhelmina the Armless Wonder), something happens that neither has foreseen. They are immediately attracted to each other. Flora is about 19, but she's not sure. She is, after all, illiterate. She lives with Jordan Whittaker, the owner of a tattoo parlour. When he's not inking or drinking, he's hitting or raping her, and he also transforms her into a walking painting. However, she is anything but a born victim, and her life will surely change.

On her weekly day off, Flora meets Minnie and her friend Abernathy, another unusual character. It's an awkward encounter, ridiculous even. Flora bumps into Abernathy and appears to be a pickpocket. She realises she needs to assert herself for once or be seen as a petty thief. She introduces herself in a way that is uncharacteristically smooth. “I'm a mystic and the only lady tattooist in New York City," she announces. The introduction pays off. Minnie offers Flora a job. She immediately moves in with Minnie and her wealthy patron, Chester Merton, in the posh part of Manhattan. However, all is not well in the mansion. Minnie may well be Chester's mistress, but he is a hunter of rarities. He is slavering over Flora and her body covered in tattoos.

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The Knowing is the debut novel of playwright Emma Hinds, and it's a debut without a hint of the rookie. Hinds relates that she based the character of Flora on the first American female tattoo artist. By the way, I did not know that tattoos were popular among women of that era. They were, even among rich women. They had tattoo parties, insisting that the tattoos be applied only to discreet parts of their bodies. Flora's tattoos, extending all the way over her hands and across her chest, show that she belongs to a lower class. The character of Minnie is supposedly based on someone who performed in PT Barnum's circus. Freak shows were popular in the Victorian era, as were séances during which the dead were summoned.

Viewed against this historical background, the story of Flora is not so strange. As a child in the orphanage, she saw spirits, and she was ridiculed and beaten for this. A girl in the orphanage begged her to keep quiet about the ghosts. “Tell nothing 'bout the Knowing," she advised. For a long time, Flora listened, but now the ghosts can no longer be ignored. That's probably how Chester Merton and his cronies feel about their unusual tastes. Chester gets his kicks out of sex with minors, disabled people and women who are covered in tattoos. His mates' preferences are also specialised. In the brothel Hotel du Woods, where Minnie works, there are reportedly different doors which relate to customers' preferences.

Minnie takes Flora to Hotel du Woods to hold a séance. But here the pawpaw hits the fan, for a spirit takes possession of Flora and speaks through her mouth. And what follows is eerie. Some scenes in the book will offend people allergic to the supernatural. There are bloody scenes, too, as the ghosts who take possession of Flora seek revenge for the injustices done to them.

The character of Flora is rich, but I like Minnie more. She is the size of a 10-year-old and has stumps for arms with only a few fingers. She fastens knots with her toes and handles soap with her feet. She began performing in the circus as a child, and there she learned that everything can be a business opportunity. The following is a memorable description of her:

She sat prim as an Astor, the blue beads on her black gown shimmering like peacock feathers.

This doll-like creature falls head over heels in love with Flora. And one almost pities Minnie when this happens, because Flora brings chaos to her life. If ever there were ever star-crossed lovers, it's these two women.

The Knowing is a heavily spiced novel that is served with soothing side dishes. There is tenderness and love. The scenes between Flora and Minnie are full of caring. Flora, who is physically attractive, doesn't see Minnie's disabilities. She notices her unusually dark blue eyes and blonde curly hair, her scent — a mixture of rose and sweat and pee — her strength and her fragility. The wings Minnie begins to wear at one stage also add to this impression of fragility, and one wants to slap the lout who mocks Minnie by asking if she has half a vagina as well, even though you know he's fictional.

The book's freaks rise above their horrible circumstances, dwarfing the perverts who try to use them. Hinds transposes the reader to another world with different customs, fashions and even words. And yes, I'm certainly a hunter for curiosities, at least when it comes to stories.

Who, what, where and how much?

The Knowing by Emma Hinds was published by Bedford Square and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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