Steam and Vapors

Josh Russell’s first novel, Yellow Jack, is a historical novel about the fictional assistant to the man who invented the daguerrotype — a fictional man whose name we never get, since he takes on a pseudonym early on in the story. I’m not usually a big fan of historical novels, but Yellow Jack is far from the stereotypically dry, fact-crammed brand of historical fiction. It’s steamy and sexy, and filled with real and psychological dangers.

Russell takes the history of yellow fever in New Orleans alongside the  development of early photographic processes, and makes it interesting. In fact, he does more than just make it interesting — he makes it downright captivating. I got about 20 pages in, and then before I knew it I had 30 pages left and couldn’t be bothered to stop, even to go to sleep.

Claude, the protagonist, slowly loses his mind because of the mercury vapors inhaled during the development of the daguerrotypes, and as he loses his mind the narrative begins to contradict itself more and more. Since Russell uses first person narration via Claude, journal entries from Claude’s mistress, and medical journal reports from an unnamed third party, the contradictions that show up in Claude’s narration create interesting conflicts between the different kinds of narration and force the reader to work harder to piece together the truth.

This was a surprising read — one recommended to me by the owner of the Librarie Bookshop on Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans — and one that was so good it only lasted one evening. If you like New Orleans and want a little bit of scandal with your history, this is the book for you!

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