Gaslight by the local author Eloise Williams really appealed to me as soon as I heard about it, because although I’ve lived in Cardiff my entire life I had, up to that point, never read a novel which utilised this amazing city as its prime setting. I’m personally a big fan of novels set in dense urban cityscapes as I love the idea of the city itself becoming a character in its own right, almost like an overpowering monster that shapes and distorts the lives of the novel’s human inhabitants. And I wasn’t at all disappointed by Gaslight on this front; it managed to portray Cardiff as a city at once both beautiful and vile, whilst simultaneously offering a character-driven narrative replete with personal struggle.
Set within and around the dingy backstreets of Victorian Cardiff, the plot of Gaslight centres on a young girl named Nansi and her desperate search for her mother who, as she’s been led to believe, abandoned her at a young age. Nansi has been taken in by a man named Sid, the owner of Cardiff’s Empire Theatre, who has provided her with a roof over her head in exchange for her working on the stage as well as performing burglaries for him. As the latter line of work may hint at, Sid is a rather villainous character, who treats Nansi and his other employees with complete contempt, and is only really concerned with profit and success, which are borne out of his own megalomaniacal derangements. However, Sid has made a promise to Nansi to help find her mother with the aid of a private detective once she has earned sufficient amounts of cash from her stage performances and burglaries, but, as you’ve probably already guessed, this offer isn’t quite what it seems on face value.
Gaslight really is an enjoyable read: it comprises short, sharp and clear sentences, but at the same time its use of local vernacular reminds you that it’s firmly situated within Cardiff, innit. This is only accentuated further with consistent references to Cardiff’s historic hallmarks, such as Temperance Town, Bute Park, Tiger Bay, and even the South Wales Echo. They’re all there! In addition, it weaves gritty descriptions of the city’s poorer classes into the narrative, for examples coal workers covered in black, thievery, murder, underage drinking and child homelessness. There are also some really nice descriptive metaphors within the prose; “[t]he dark is so thick you could chew it” and “[t]he silvery light makes the china-blue walls glacial”, for example, really stood out for me.
I found the character of Nansi to be a really endearing one; throughout the novel she faces many hardships, and there are times when it seems as if she’s hit rock bottom, but despite all of this, her determination and her willingness to do good for others never really leaves her. On the other hand (and without spoiling anything), I did find the final encounter (along with its plot twist) a little bit rushed; it seemed as if too many revelations were being presented all at once, and I thought these could have been spread more evenly throughout the novel. Moreover, I didn’t find myself all that convinced by the relationship between Nansi and her mother—it seemed a bit underwhelming and again, a bit rushed in terms of its writing.
Eloise Williams certainly isn’t reinventing the wheel here, but she is drawing on that classic ‘coming-of-age’ format that will appeal to a lot of readers, particularly younger ones. Much like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I actually feel as if I would have enjoyed the novel more if I’d read it as a teenager, because I would have been able to identify with the central character a bit better, who is after all of that age herself. Overall, Gaslight is a solid novel which offers elements of comedy and tragedy in equal parts, and although it does have its flaws, it’s well written, entertaining, and very easy to read, so it’s probably worth your time.
By Rhys Morgan