When Frances Howard, beautiful but unhappy wife of the Earl of Essex, meets the talented Anne Turner, the two strike up an unlikely, yet powerful, friendship. Frances makes Anne her confidante, sweeping her into a glamorous and extravagant world, riven with bitter rivalry.
Jago weaves an intricate web of social, sexual and political maneuvers that entangles all her characters. Even Frankie’s abusive husband is depicted with a measure of empathy as the traumatized son of a man executed for treason ... (Readers lacking a degree in English history, relax: It’s not necessary to know precisely what historical events Anne alludes to in order to follow the plot, and Jago provides a helpful list of 'the principal actors.') ... Anne is our guide to this decadent society, a wonderfully complex, not entirely likable character who shrewdly observes other people’s missteps but is sometimes maddeningly oblivious to her own failures of judgment ... a dense narrative stuffed with vividly drawn secondary characters and atmospheric set pieces that include a gruesome bearbaiting and a visit to an elaborately depraved brothel. Uncompromisingly dark though it often is, A Net for Small Fishes is also highly satisfying entertainment.
The book’s title refers to justice, which catches small fry while letting larger fish escape punishment. Anne thrums with life all the way through to her tragic, gruesome end, while Frankie is calculating and alluring. The fact that all of the action is filtered through Anne’s voice means that some of Frankie’s escapades have a slightly secondhand air to them, and Carr never really convinces as a replacement for the vile Essex. These, though, are small gripes compared with the many things there are to love in this scintillating novel that plunges you head-first into a darkly compelling chapter of British history.
Lucy Jago is an award-winning biographer whose richly imagined adult fiction debut is based around a scandal that rocked the Jacobean court ... Jago is excellent on clothes ... Ultimately, though, this is the story of a female friendship that transgressed moral and social norms in a misogynist society. Anne’s account of their relationship nicely balances self-interest with sincerity; Frances looks like her route to advancement, until the gossip gathering around the aristocratic lovers threatens her own more modest hopes of romantic happiness ... Like all the best historical fiction, A Net for Small Fishes is a gloriously immersive escape from present times, but it’s not escapism: the outrage with which Anne is told at her trial that 'you have acted of and for yourself, which is itself against the proper bounds of womanhood' is a sentiment that echoes down the centuries. Shrewd yet impetuous, entirely without self-pity, Anne remains a lively companion for the modern reader throughout; her tragedy, Jago suggests, is that she was too good a companion to Frances.