Reading Unusual Books: A Continuing Story

With the library still closed I continue to read whatever books people throw at me. This week I’ve swapped my usual fiction for a true story: Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five. Its subtitle – The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper – tells one exactly what to expect: a story that has been told many times before and yet hasn’t. As Rubenhold rightly points out, the Ripper’s victims are often solely defined through their brief and fatal relation to their still unidentified killer. The Five aims to set this inaccuracy right and tell the untold stories of the victims’ lives rather than their deaths.

Having very little reliable source material to work with, Rubenhold does an admirable job at reconstructing these women’s lives and the society they lived in. Of course I already knew that London was a bit of a cesspit at the time, but I didn’t know to what extent, and even those with no interest whatsoever in the Ripper murders will find the book interesting for its level of detail and liveliness. It world is so strange yet so familiar. And I can’t help thinking that while London’s worst slums are fortunately a thing of the past, the incredible gap between rich and poor persists to this very day.

Despite my love for horror and all things weird and wonderful I’ve always disliked the glorification of serial killers. To some extent Jack the Ripper has become something of a tourist attraction, the spectacle of which overshadows the lives and the suffering of his victims. I’ve done some research on serial killing for my thesis – in other words, many moons ago – and I’ve rarely felt more uncomfortable with what I encountered. Serial killing is not cool or glamorous and I’ve never had any desire to read accounts of the Ripper murders for entertainment purposes.

It’s a relief, then, that Rubenhold does not cover the murders in detail. After all, this has been done many times before and there’s little point in rehashing existing stories about gore and suffering. Instead, she paints an incredibly lively and detailed picture of the Ripper’s victims. They become individuals with jobs, relationships and children. They are not mere props in an overtly familiar horror story.

One interesting revelation: most of the victims were probably not prostitutes, despite the media at the time branding them as such. There’s nothing wrong with being a sex worker, of course, but incorrectly labelling someone as such as using said label as a way to demonize them is definitely not right. Annie Chapman, for example, seems to have been relatively well-off until alcoholism gradually destroyed her peaceful family life.

I haven’t finished the book yet, I’m not even halfway, and I don’t normally write reviews until I have read the very last sentence of a text, heard the last notes of the music, seen the last painting of the exhibition. But I felt a need to record my thoughts as I’m reading this because the book itself is one I would probably not have picked myself, and yet feels so incredibly interesting. I’m hardly stating an unpopular opinion here: the book has won several prizes including the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction 2019.

And zooming out, I think I might stick to this habit even after I can get my hands on a steady stream of books again. I try to read widely but one tends to stick to what one knows, anyway. Reading something a bit different has been a revelation, something to break the monotony of life in lockdown, and I hope I can keep it up as I slowly get my freedom back.

Image Tom Rogers via Unsplash

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