Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman review – myth in Georgian London

A young woman living above an antiquarian shop comes across an ancient vase in this vivid debut

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

One day, her crooked uncle illegally salvages from a shipwreck a Greek vase so old it cannot be dated, carved with images from the Pandora myth, and wreathed in horrifying bad luck. The narrative ranges between young antiquarian Edward, Pandora herself, and her uncle Hezekiah to chart the disasters and mysteries that follow. It dances between painstaking realism and the softest chance of the supernatural, courting both but marrying neither in an elegant negotiation that admits very different readings.

Pandora is a narrator rather than a hero, observing with a cruel eye for detail that seeps into other characters’ narration, too – one London lane “teems like maggots in an open sore”, and the book is filled with people described as “fleshy” or with “too many chins”, or followed by the smell of rotting meat. Most of the time, it’s this vivid witnessing that defines Pandora. Her namesake opens the box, and bears the consequences; but this Pandora doesn’t take that kind of decisive action. Even the actions of her magpie, Hermes, have more of a plot impact than her own.

There’s a sense that Pandora holds the moral high ground in this novel, not because she does good things but because she is suffering under her uncle’s tyranny. Virtue via suffering is apt for this time period, but it’s also a device that sometimes makes her bland. Meanwhile, her uncle is purely despicable – he too tends to be flat.

Those clearcut, simple main players are plainly a creative decision, though, because Stokes-Chapman can write fascinating, three-dimensional characters; sharp, sad Cornelius Ashmole and the angrily tragic Lottie, Hezekiah’s housekeeper, 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 fantastical archaeological theories, Pandora is a readable, solid debut.

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


Natasha Pulley

The GuardianTramp

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