Rosenberg's exhilarating mystery intermeshes an 18th-century transgender love story with the deep pleasures of a real friendship. In ribald prose and vibrant dialogue, Jack Sheppard, the greatest jailbreaker and most devoted carouser in all of London, is bound beneath the gallows of beam at Tyburn.
In November 1724, theft and deceit flourish in London's bawdy brothels and crime-riddled back alleys. Here, sharp-tongued Jack runs for his life toward Holborn Bridge and Smithfield butcher stalls, where he attempts to pick his way through the shallows of Black Friars and along the Thames docks dotted with stalled behemoths--the twelve ghost plague ships that will come to define much of Jack's road ahead. Before he meets beloved Bess Khan, and before his friend Aurie saves him from the gallows, Jack's mother tells him that he is "the greatest shame of her life" the day she bought him to Kneebone's, the master carpenter's doorstep. With orders to "be a good girl, to walk like a lady," Jack's new home rapidly becomes "a thing of nightmares," a servitude in which he is but another moving part.
Ensconced in his filthy dark garret in the upper reaches of the spindly townhouse, Jack is trapped by Kneebone, who holds a heavy lock and chain in his hand: "I'm not extraordinary cruel but I've bought your body and soul for the period of ten years." Indeed, the misery of Jack's mother has given way to torments still worse. In these years of slavery, Jack lives the life of "an ugly misshapen girl," chained to workbenches that turn out useless items for "aristocratic dogs." There's something that sets him apart, something that has caused him to dress his own chest in taut bandages since his twelfth year.
Rosenberg lures the reader into a sticky web spun from intrigue, corruption, pimping, pandering, love, and vengeance. Pay special attention to the author's footnotes (which are written as if the novel were a manuscript that had never been read at all because it was stuffed into the back of a library stack "for god knows how long"). The rapidly deranged thoughts of Dr. Voth give us much additional entertaining detail. As he walks into the New England night, Vox confesses that he wants to publish the manuscript, but he wonders whether it's an authentic autobiography. Is the manuscript a fairy tale? Or is it in fact the earliest confessional transgender memoir in Western history?
The battle is soon waged between Jack and Bess on one side and the evil machinations of Surgeon Evans on the other. Evans is exploring the topic of sexual chimeras, a new category of creature, so he has a personal stake in capturing Jack, although Evans refuses to reveal his true intentions as the two engage in a cat-and-mouse chase through London, where the night birds shriek on corners and urchins dash down dark alleys. In Dennison's bat house, Jack meets his nemesis, an army of sentinels, profiteers and killers, financed and emboldened by London's Thief-Catcher General. Jack loves Bess and, to his great surprise, she loves him. The two embark on a vividly described sexual affair as Jack finally seizes on his liberation. Bess, "the moll extraordinaire," remains constantly by his side.
Dr. Voss becomes ever crazier, realizing too late that the college administration is out to hijack his beloved manuscript. A transgender man himself, Voss's life begins to parallel Jack's as he unleashes a diatribe about his ex-girlfriend. Every bit of knowledge she gleaned was a weapon she used against him in a "battle that was inevitable." Vos is more than up for the deprived challenge he poses, writing desperately to save himself only to realize that he's part of some "distant incandescence called history." Jack feels a flash of joy in what he imagines a so-called union with Beth. As he toys with her, Bess squirms in his arms, groaning with a pleasure that "cracks her open." As each of the characters Jack encounters connects to others, and the intricacies of their relationships become apparent, our hero's final encounter with his pursuers draws closer and closer.
Rosenberg's novel has much of the outrageous essence of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, but with a much more menacing villain and a wholly original hero. In this ultimate battle, our Jack is resolute in stopping his road to the gallows and returning to Bess, his one true love. Recalling Brecht's Threepenny Opera and exposing the seedy underbelly of London society--its taverns, doxies and thieves--Rosenberg's story is not to be missed.