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Metropolis: A Novel, by Elizabeth Gaffney.

August 25, 2014

Metropolis: A Novel, by Elizabeth Gaffney.   New York : Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2006.


Enjoyable historical fiction about the people living in the underside of New York in the late 1800s.


A young man, recently arrived from Germany, quickly gets caught up in the chaos of a city as young and changeable as himself. Changing his name and identity frequently helps him survive until he settles into being Frank Harris, not a German but an Irishman complete with an authentic sounding accent. Unintentionally he becomes part of a highly unusual criminal gang, one that combines its criminal behavior with progressive ideas like profit-sharing and expanded options for women. Frank falls in love with Beatrice, a bright, attractive Irish woman from the gang, only to have her swept away. A stone mason by training, he works in the sewers underneath the city and on the Brooklyn Bridge which towers above it as he slowly makes a place for himself in New York.


Elizabeth Gaffney had fun researching and writing this historical novel, and her fun translates into enjoyment for her readers. She combed a variety of sources to collect the factual details which establish what New York and its inhabitants were like in the 1870s, and she has filled her story with delightful bits of information. As she explains in the interview included in the book, she sees her goal as a novelist is to explore the unseen places in our history, “looking in closets and under the counters and down the manhole covers, not eavesdropping on the conversations in the living rooms and parlors.” In doing so, she directs her attention to people not usually included in fiction. She has also created an imaginative, if implausible story, full of suspense and sensitivity. Written in the style of sweeping nineteenth-century novels, its characters face problems still with us today; inequality, discrimination and women’s inability to find adequate health care.


I gladly recommend this book to all readers who enjoy learning about the past through fiction.


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