Pandora necklace

Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman Review – Myth in Georgian London | fiction

VSCreated by Hephaestus and released into the world of men to bring both misery and hope, Pandora is a figure whose name evokes an expectation of mythical drama; but Susan Stokes-Chapman’s best-selling debut novel only gently hints at those possibilities. Her Pandora is about a young woman living in an attic above her uncle’s fake antiques shop in 18th-century London, training to become a designer of fine jewelry.

One day, her crooked uncle illegally salvages from a shipwreck a Greek vase so old it is impossible to date it, carved with images from the Pandora mythos and crowned with horrible bad luck. The story oscillates between the young antiquarian Edward, Pandora herself and her uncle Hezekiah to trace the disasters and mysteries that ensue. It dances between meticulous realism and the sweetest chance of the supernatural, courting the two but marrying neither in an elegant negotiation that admits very different readings.

Pandora is a storyteller rather than a hero, observing with a cruel eye for detail that also seeps into the other characters’ storytelling – a London lane “swarms like maggots in an open wound”, and the book is filled with of people described as “fleshy”. or with “too many chins”, or followed by the smell of rotten meat. Most of the time, it is this living testimony that defines Pandora. His namesake opens the box and bears the consequences; but this Pandora doesn’t take that kind of decisive action. Even the actions of his magpie, Hermes, impact the plot more than his own.

There’s a sense that Pandora holds high morals in this novel, not because she does good things but because she suffers under her uncle’s tyranny. Virtue via suffering is appropriate for this time, but it’s also a device that makes it bland at times. Meanwhile, his uncle is downright despicable – he too tends to be flat.

These clean, simple lead actors are clearly a creative move, as Stokes-Chapman can write compelling three-dimensional characters; The lively and sad Cornelius Ashmole and the terribly tragic Lottie, Hezekiah’s governess, haunt the periphery of the novel. Meanwhile, extensive research brings the period so much to life you can taste it. With a convoluted plot full of buried family histories and fantastic archaeological theories, Pandora is a readable and solid beginning.

Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman is published by Harvill Secker (£14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.