Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Book #57

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Nat Davy is a dwarf. He is 10 years old, and all he wants is to be normal. After narrowly escaping being sold to the circus by his father, Nat is presented to Queen Henrietta Maria - in a pie. She's 15, trapped in a loveless marriage to King Charles I, and desperately homesick. Nat becomes a friend to the woman who'll become the power behind the throne and trigger the Civil War, but in the eyes of the world he's still a pet, a doll to be dressed up and shown off. Nat longs to ride and hunt like the other boys at court. The real boys. But he will never be accepted. 

Nat Davy - the smallest man in England - is ten years old and eighteen inches tall. Despite his best efforts to grow, whether by magical or physical methods, his height remains significantly detrimental to his life. Add in a greedy, stone hearted father, and we see Nat narrowly miss being sold to the circus, only to be bought as a gift for the young queen of Charles I, ultimately surprising her by popping out of a pie.

Quinn perfectly weaves her story in mixtures of invention and truth. Although Nat was based on a real man, Jeffrey Hudson, his exploits only matched Jeffrey’s some of the time, and his feelings and emotion can only be guessed at. In contrast, Quinn paints a clear and true picture of the English Civil War, of the unrest, and its effects on both those in power and those in poverty.

It was gorgeous to see Nat’s relationship develop with the queen - both of them outcasts, both of them lonely, they find common ground and maintain a solid relationship. It’s an unlikely, yet beautiful friendship, and really disputes any preconceptions readers may have about how a queen would treat such an unusual companion.

There’s a lot going on here, and it can sometimes become difficult to keep up - particularly with the politics of war. The novel was split into three parts, and I felt differently reading each of them. The first allowed us to get to know Nat, and experience his removal from family, and his adjustment to his new lavish lifestyle; very engaging and emotional. The second moved the focus on to the political and royal side of the narrative, with the third winding things down to the ultimate conclusion. It was in these second and third sections where I didn’t feel as engaged, although I couldn’t describe why this was, other than they lacked something the first part had in abundance. It’s very strange for me not to be able to put my finger on this, but here we are.

I felt Quinn did an excellent job of showing us how people were treated in the seventeenth century, particularly those who were different. If you were disabled, you could expect stares and namecalling, to feel completely othered, and perhaps, even, to be sold to the circus by your father. Nat’s struggles were heartbreaking, and his stark wish - to be just like everyone else - remained a constant reminder of how we still treat others.

There was some interesting commentary towards the end where Nat considers where he would be in life had he grown to the same size as everyone else. He considers the places he’d visited, the people he’d met, and concluded none of this would have been possible had he reached an average height. I think there’s something there each of us can hold close - despite our flaws, our choices, and our regrets, the blessings we’ve had have only been possible because of who we are.

A gorgeous look at an unusual and heartrending protagonist, with (if you’re a dunce like me) some excellent historical knowledge to take away. Quinn has crafted something great here which will fascinate historical fiction lovers, and anyone who just loves a good underdog.