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.
Lucy Jago is a historian and the history here is very good. The London settings are precisely evoked; the sexual ambiguity of King James I’s court, along with its stiff hierarchies of rank and familial hostilities, are convincing. So too is the powerful undertow of religious divisions – with the Catholic Guy Fawkes and his band’s attempt to blow up Parliament – and the way they co-exist with pagan superstitions such as magic potions, necromancy and witchcraft. In the mental world of most Jacobeans, a woman’s worth is measured by her obedience to kin and custom; self-assertion is the devil’s work ... What doesn’t work is the choice of narrator and the words she is given ... She must explain complicated matters so that we follow a story about real people while absorbing a revisionary version, no longer misogynistic: one that emphasizes female friendship and rewrites the values attached to crimes and misdemeanours. Sometimes she recounts scenes she hasn’t witnessed ... While the muscles behind my eyes ached from the sense that every scene was written with a view to a screen adaptation, I was ultimately moved by a complex and intelligent interpretation of a story that bears retelling.