Carey, an artist and playwright who has worked at Madame Tussauds in London, has turned his experience into a startingly original novel. He finds and treasures the ironies and macabre eccentricities of Tussaud’s world. The pages are also enriched by his beautiful and haunting illustrations of body parts and anatomical models.
Carey’s story is cinematic in scope, fairy tale-like in its attention to coincidence, and to the fateful cycle of pride and fall. His world is topsy-turvy: dolls sleep in velvet boxes while humans are bundled into cupboards; artists cast figures in wax while the real head is still dripping with blood. Marie’s beleaguered life is changed when a surprise visit from the Princess Élisabeth leads to the offer of a job at the Palace of Versailles, where she spends her days playing hide-and-seek at the princess’s whims, slowly finding her place within a chaotic and suspicious royal household. There, she befriends King Louis XVI, having mistaken him for a local locksmith, and stands on a chest to watch the queen Marie Antoinette in childbirth (thus confirming that the child is a royal heir).
At one point in Edward Carey’s rich, engrossing novel, a young French princess hires an art teacher... To look well, for Carey, an illustrator as well as a novelist, is to see how emotion and meaning inhere in all objects, giving them independent life... Carey builds worlds where things take on supposedly human characteristics and humans are portrayed as animated things... Little is full of grief, but also full of love... Occasionally, Carey loses faith in the extraordinary potency of his material, making insights that arise of their own accord (the equalising nature of waxworks, for instance) too explicit and neat. Some characters are less complex than they could be. But at its best this is a visceral, vivid and moving novel about finding and honouring one’s talent; about searching out where one belongs and who one loves, however strange and politically fraught the result might be.
...in Edward Carey’s wonderfully weird novel of Marie’s life (she was mostly known as Marie, but Little to some) he rightly makes use of all these possible truths for his fiction. It makes for some great scenes, including one where the young Marie teaches Elisabeth that her servants “have the same innards” as she does. What adds further artistic credence to Carey’s novel is that it is told in the first person and in the style of those great bulky Victorian novels that sought to capture the fullness and variety of a person’s life, from beginning to end, or in Marie’s case, from dirt poor poverty to fame.Carey is also a great caricaturist. His novel is full of his own beautiful illustrations (in this regard, Carey’s novelistic approach is similar to that of Alasdair Gray)... Carey reproduces, or invents, all of this with relentless energy, giving Marie an appropriate sense of history as spectacle.
The reader of Edward Carey’s Little must have a tender heart and a strong stomach. You will weep, you will applaud, you will wonder if your nerves can take it, but most of all you will shudder. In this gloriously gruesome imagining of the girlhood of Marie Tussaud, mistress of wax, fleas will bite, rats will run and heads will roll and roll and roll. Guts’n’gore galore: I bloody loved it... Carey, author of the children’s Iremonger Trilogy, tells his tale with gusto... Unlike, say, William Boyd’s Love is Blind, which gives you the mechanics of piano-tuning in fin-de-siècle Paris in the manner of the Open University, Carey teaches the face-makers’ art with lip-smacking relish... And unlike, say, portentous Prague in Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, in Carey’s subtle, modelling hands, Paris is gay and gloomy, debauched and deathly, fabulous and fearful. Marie is the eyes, ears and hold-your-nose of this book, a delightful guide to a mad, macabre world.
By turns macabre, funny, touching and oddly life-affirming, Little is a remarkable achievement.