Derby Day by DJ Taylor

December 21, 2012

Plot summary (from the publisher): As the shadows lengthen over the June grass, all England is heading for Epsom Down—high life and low life, society beauties and White chapel street girls, bookmakers and gypsies, hawkers and thieves. Hopes are high, nerves are taut, hats are tossed in the air—this is Derby Day.

For months people have been waiting and plotting for this day. Everyone’s eyes are on champion horse Tiberius, on whose performance half a dozen destinies depend. In this rich and exuberant novel, rife with the idioms of Victorian England, the mysteries pile high, propelling us toward the day of the great race, and we wait with bated breath as the story gallops to a finish that no one expects.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I love Victorian literature, and I thought DJ Taylor did a great job of capturing the essence of novels of that period, from the language itself to the various storylines and characters who aren’t quite all they seem.
  • I was interested in what Rebecca’s end game was. I couldn’t figure out if she really loved Happerton or not. I guess she did, and was firmly in his corner until she discovered he had a mistress. It wasn’t until that point that she decided to turn on him.
  • Despite the Derby being in the background most of the time, I was actually curious as to who would win. How Tiberius, ridden by the ancient Major Hubbins, managed to pull it off I’ll never know.

Disliked:

  • I wish Taylor had been a bit more explicit about some things in the book. The robbery, for instance, seemed to come out of nowhere and was felt only tangentially related to the main plot. If he had been more clear that Happerton wanted the money to finance his hedge bets against Tiberius, I might have found those scenes more intriguing.
  • The goings on at Scroop Hall felt rather dull compared to everything else. I didn’t really care about Mr. Davenant, his autistic (?) daughter Evie, or the governess, and was bored to tears whenever the focus was on them. Wasn’t it enough to say that Happerton bought Tiberius from Davenant? Was it really necessary to show just how much further the man fell into debt and disarray afterward?
  • The ending turned out to be anticlimactic, IMO. Again, maybe I’m just too dense to understand things, but I wish Taylor had been more explicit about Rebecca’s plans. What benefit did she derive from sending Happerton to jail? Was it just that she received her father’s full inheritance herself without having to share it? How much was the old man worth? Was that ever stated?

Rating:

To me, Derby Day was a very uneven novel. It started out slowly, became rather engrossing, and then finished with a whimper. All the ingredients for a great story were seemingly in place, but the work as a whole could have benefited from some minor tweaks and more editing. Overall, though, I think it was more enjoyable than not, so I’m giving it 3 stars out of 5.

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