Belle Nash and the Bath Souffle

Bath is without doubt my favourite city in the whole wide world.  I accept that this grandiose statement does little to acknowledge the thousands of cities I have yet to visit (I remain committed to travel, despite bringing covid back as a souvenir from my latest adventure) but I have a feeling the metropolitan magnificence of Somerset’s crowning jewel will prove hard to beat wherever on this planet I may go.  I am not totally sure what makes it so special: maybe it’s the stunning architecture around every single corner;  the incredible bookshops I can lose myself in for hours at a time; or maybe it’s the ghost of Jane Austen calling me across the centuries to be her bosom buddy for all eternity. (I am dying to introduce her to Colin Firth and see what she thinks). So as you can imagine I jumped at the chance to review a novel set in this most beloved of all locations.  Belle Nash and the Bath Souffle did not disappoint.

Set in the early 1830s, this is the story of a group of friends determined to seek justice when a failed souffle ruins their social soiree: a birthday party held for “confirmed bachelor” and councilman Mr Belle Nash by his best friend, Mrs Gaia Champion.  Each attendee commits to investigating just how such a travesty could have happened and the finger of blame soon points towards a morally questionable grocer based in the heart of the city.  As their criminal enquiries advance, the depth of corruption becomes clear and each of them becomes entangled with consequences they could not have predicted.  With more twists and turns than the back alleys of Bath, this is a surprisingly fast-paced and entertaining rollercoaster ride as the reader finds themselves rooting for the justice these people deserve.

There were so many things I loved about this novel that I don’t know where to start.  Firstly, Keeling’s use of humour is outstanding.  There are echoes of Dickens in both the hilarious naming and characterisation of certain individuals (Mrs Crust, the pie maker, literally embodies the baked goods she creates; Nash’s “second cousin” Gerhardt insists on wearing a wig that fundamentally takes on a life of its own and is worthy of a separate spin-off) and gentle fun is persistently poked at even the most likeable of personalities.  I also really enjoyed the vibrant historical backdrop that brings context to the main storyline, with 12 year old Princess Victoria visiting the city to open the very park that I love spending time in today. By weaving in the future Queen, Keeling powerfully enhances the feminist thrust that drives this narrative throughout, with women repeatedly proving themselves worthy of far greater recognition that the patriarchy allow.  In fact my only true disappointment is that this book wasn’t adorned “Gaia Champion and the Bath Souffle” – after all, to my mind she is the true heroine of this tale.

This I can forgive, however, as above all I adored the way that 19th century Bath was portrayed in so animated and lively a way by Keeling’s descriptions, fundamentally bringing the city to life as a character in its own right.  Having written my university dissertation on Topography and Location in the Work of Jane Austen, this has made me want to dust off the textbooks and analyse once more just how powerful the setting of a tale can be in driving the subtleties of subtext.  But instead of boring you with my amateur analysis (I do tend to go on a bit), I shall simply report my excitement that this is the first in a series entitled The Gay Street Chronicles and I will be awaiting part 2 with much anticipation.  I highly recommend immersing yourself in the world of Belle Nash and his associates forthwith. You won’t regret it.

Author: Bookaholicbex

Book-nerd with a passion for all things literary. If only real life would stop getting in the way of reading...

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