Book Review: 'THE FAIR FIGHT', by Anna Freeman. 07/11/2014
The debut novel from Anna Freeman, which apparently was written to form part of her MA at University. Primarily set in 18th Century Bristol, the author uses her knowledge of her hometown's history to bring the port city to fascinating, detailed life. Each chapter in the story is told from the point of view of one of 3 characters. This literary approach potentially makes for a riveting story, as lives cross over, and singular events are interpreted from different perspectives. "Voice In the Parks" by Anthony Brown, or the Quentin Tarantino adaptation of Elmore Leonard's "Jackie Brown" are examples of how this could be done well. Could this book adopt this technique as effectively?
The first of the characters is Ruth. Born into a brothel and spotted as a fighter at the age of 10, she is forced to enter the world of pugilism by the rich merchant Granville Dryer, who buys her time. She's no beauty to begin with, unlike her elder sister, Dora, and the bruises and lost teeth from the fighting do little to help matters. But that's of little concern, she'll fight, and she won't back down - win or lose, her opponents will know it.
The second voice is Charlotte, survivor of the pox which has claimed the lives of her parents and 2 siblings. The only family she has left is her obnoxious, arrogant brother, Perry, who has inherited the family estate and riches.
Finally there's George Bowden, best friend of Charlotte's brother, a recipient of private schooling at the same institution as Perry, and a 'gentleman' himself. At least on the outside. In reality, he's a conniving gambler, leeching off his friend's fortune under the guise of employment while simultaneously scheming of means to a better place for himself.
The author has put together a tightly wound story. The tale incorporates authentic 18th Century vernacular. The characters are vividly developed and the drama gathers sufficient momentum leading up to its conclusion. However, there far too many occurrences that stretch credibility to the limit. For example, Ruth's final fight at the Bristol fair is against a hulking giant of boxer. Not only does she survive many rounds of absolute pummelling, but she recovers to knock his tooth out. Then she receives a full facer, and is smashed through the boards, cracking her skull. But, miraculously, she's still able to rise up and stumble to the crease.
This is one of a number of events which, frankly, beggar belief. The incredulity of how Charlotte ends up sleeping with George Bowden, after all she had been through up to that point in the story, and with the very same man who raised her hopes and then spurned her advances, paving the way for her loveless arranged marriage. The way George loses the deeds to the plantation (surely no one can be that naive in real life). The fact that nobody thought to search for the hoard of money that Ruth and Dora's mother, now dead, had obviously accumulated over years of running the brothel. The way the situation over Granville's attack at the Convent is resolved at the conclusion of the story (he doesn't even call the police???).
Another disappointing aspect of the writing was of the fights themselves. From Ruth's first bout against the butcher's boy at the local drinking den, the Hatchet, to Tom Webber's final clash at Wimbledon Common, the depiction of the fights were sketchy at best, very brief, almost over before they even began. There's no 16-round 'Rocky' classic to be found here. Yes, the story is as much about women fighting for their place in the world as women fighting in the ring, but the fights are a major component of the tale. We needed a 'Raging Bull'!!
A readable book that will empower female readers, no doubt. However, the story is badly let down by the way the various threads are eventually resolved, making for a weak conclusion overall.