Featherweight by Mick Kitson review – a punchy historical yarn

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Mick Kitson’s second novel, following 2018’s Sal, is practically the definition of a ripping yarn: a plucky young “Romi” girl, Annie, is bought by the Tipton Slasher, a bareknuckle boxer, with the winnings from his final fight. He raises her like a daughter and she follows his footsteps into the ring. The sight of a woman fighting “fisty” in Victorian England draws eager crowds and brings our heroine fame, fortune and an Adonis-like prizefighter of a husband. But these illegal fights lead Annie into peril, too, as she encounters vicious opponents, enraged lawmakers and nasty toffs who want her for their private entertainment…

Kitson drew on his family’s myths – Annie and the Slasher are based on his ancestors – although he cheerfully admits the stories his grandmother told about them were notoriously unreliable. No matter: this is historical fiction rich in fun rather than meticulous fact, Kitson’s imagination allowed to roam and play.

He has a fine time with Annie and the Slasher – warm, memorable creations who come punching off the page

He has a fine time with Annie and the Slasher – warm, memorable creations who come punching off the page. Describing Annie, it’s hard not to fall back on cliched phrases for modern female protagonists – a “strong woman”, a “feisty heroine” – but Kitson crafts her voice with enough verve so that she doesn’t feel like a wishful historical rewrite.

Featherweight transports the reader to the tough, rapidly industrialising world of the 19th-century Black Country, with its old canals and new railways, the soot of the forges and strikes at the nail factories, via lushly detailed, rhythmical descriptions. “The furnace … made the sky orange all night and fat sparks danced up in the steam and curled and fell like they was the shed leaves of a white-hot tree.”

Kitson’s black-and-white, heroes-and-villains plotting is predictable, although Featherweight remains a gleeful, page-flipping read. Fights are breathlessly paced, if not rendered so grittily as to put off the queasier readers out there. It all adds up to a rollicking tale, one you’ll be glad to take a ringside seat for.

Featherweight by Mick Kitson is published by Canongate (£14.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply