Book Review – The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Pages: 372
Published: 6th February 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction
Trigger warnings: Discrimination/bullying, injury detail

When should my story begin? Not when I was born, a butcher’s son, in a tiny cottage just like all the other tiny cottages in Oakham. Who’d have thought then that I’d ever have much of a story to tell? Perhaps it starts when people began to nudge each other and stare as I walked with my mother to market, or the first time someone whispered that we were cursed. But I didn’t know then. No, I think my story begins on the day of the Oakham Fair, in the year of 1625. When I was ten years old and I found out what I was.

Nathaniel Davy is a dwarf. He is 10 years old, and all he wants is to be normal. After narrowly escaping being sold to the circus by his father, Nat is presented to Queen Henrietta Maria – in a pie. She’s 15, trapped in a loveless marriage to King Charles I, and desperately homesick. Nat becomes a friend to the woman who’ll become the power behind the throne and trigger the Civil War, but in the eyes of the world he’s still a pet, a doll to be dressed up and shown off. Nat longs to ride and hunt like the other boys at court. The real boys. But he will never be accepted.

Loosely based on a true story, this epic tale spans 20 years. Told from his unique perspective as the smallest man in England, with the clever and engaging voice of a boy turned man yearning for acceptance, this story takes us on an unforgettable journey. He’s England’s smallest man, but his story is anything but small.

This is an extraordinary and simply beautiful story that conjures a whole raft of emotions courtesy of a outstanding character development and a uniquely moving narrative. Written with the perfect blend of sensitivity and wit, conveying all the peaks and troughs of a lifelong battle to defeat the odds, it is so engaging that it surely cannot fail to capture your undivided attention.

Partly inspired by real events and set during the tumultuous period of the English Civil War, the author uses many elements of her own imagination to weave together a first-rate novel, and it is not only a truly exquisite example of historical fiction but one that is unlike many others. From start to finish it never loses its essence, as something royally uplifting and full of genuine heart, ensuring that your connection to it will always remain unbroken.

Nathaniel Davy is a ten-year-old boy who has never grown beyond the height of a toddler, and he is eventually forced to confront the upsetting truth that he is destined to remain tiny for his entire life, after many failed attempts including making a wish to a so-called faerie at a fairground. Soon after, he has to leave his family in Oakham after his father sells him to the Duke of Buckingham for a mere eleven shillings.

A highly influential figure and the closest confidant to King Charles I, the Duke purchases Nat as a gift for the teenage queen Henrietta Maria. When he is presented to the queen in a pie, she and the king are fascinated by Nat, who is rightfully resentful at being seen as an item of curiosity. Despite his sadness, Nat becomes friends with the queen and finds they have much more in common than he realised.

Determined to be like other boys, Nat convinces the palace’s kindly groom Jeremiah to teach him to ride a horse, and after initial fears he becomes highly accomplished. As his advice to the queen aids her relationship with the king, resistance to the ruling monarchy grows across the country and parliamentarians raise an army to overthrow them, thrusting Nat into battle alongside the queen and the royalist forces.

There are several heart-rending moments throughout the book, such as the moments early on when Nat encounters the faerie and his disconsolate mother’s failed attempts to convince his father not to sell him. This continues later as he suffers bullying at the hands of the vile Charles Crofts and the sense of hopelessness he feels after Arabella is introduced. However, as bittersweet as Nat’s life is, the happier moments are the ones that make it such a wholesome reading experience.

A real strength of meaning runs through the story and makes you invested in everything that happens, good and bad. The backdrop of the civil war is increasingly prominent as it progresses, but it is the character development which makes it so special, and ultimately everything belongs to Nat. You are rooting for him every step of the way and despite all of the challenges he faces, he is rather heroic.

Intriguingly, the book is told entirely by Nat in the second person as a retrospective account of his life. This is not prominent throughout, although there are several moments including right at the start, that make it clear that he is communicating directly to the reader. The technique adds to the originality of it and really helps to bring out Nat’s personality, for he is thoughtful and has a sharp mind, yet also manages to confront his flaws.

The supporting characters are all splendidly developed, in a way that makes you feel like you get to know them very quickly. It starts early on when you see Nat’s moving relationships with his mother and brother, who are both very endearing. Sam is adorable for the way he tries to help Nat in his various attempts to grow taller, and as an adult he has much the same kind of innocence.

Jeremiah is a also a wonderful character and acts as a kind of father figure to Nat, whereas Henry is somewhat larger than life albeit still likeable. In contrast to that we have Charles Crofts, who is just awful as both an adult and a child he seems to take constant pleasure in persecuting Nat, to the extent that he evoked strong feelings of anger in me.

The dynamic between the king and queen is also a key part of the story and I really enjoyed how that played out, as their initial acrimony towards each other turns into a close bond which endures as the civil war gets more intense. Nat’s friendship with the queen was powerful and she comes out of the whole thing very well, unlike the ill-fated king, with Nat often having to lament his strategic shortcomings.

In the meantime, the stakes also get higher and with that the settings become more hostile. At one point Nat has to accompany the queen as she flees abroad as the parliamentary forces hunt her down and people supporting the royalist cause are brutally made to suffer at their hands. The life-or-death aspect of this is emphasised when Nat stays with Jeremiah and Sukie, and returns to his hometown of Oakham. Both are unforgiving in the extreme.

The storytelling is remarkably good and the author shows terrific inspiration to create such a strong narrative with equal amounts of melancholy and humour, all while moving things at a reasonably fast pace. Similarly, the addition of a potential romance had the potential to slightly derail the plot, but instead it works nicely and paves the way for a happy ending.

Overall, this is a wonderfully immersive book that you build an instant connection with, largely down to the characters and the quality of storytelling. Nat’s journey is an epic one and the portrayal is uplifting rather than sympathetic, and his unique voice carries you through events seamlessly, leaving lasting emotions along the way.

Despite self-proclaimed laziness, Frances Quinn completed a degree in English at King’s College London before becoming a journalist, writing for a number of popular UK magazines. She then worked as a copywriter, completing a variety of random assignments.

Inspired to write The Smallest Man after discovering the story of Jeffrey Hudson – upon whose story Nat’s is loosely based – it became her debut novel when released in 2020. Her second, The Bonesetter Woman, set in Georgian London, is due to be released later this year.

Another notable thing to say here is that The Smallest Man is dedicated to the four members of ABBA. Unusual, but if you are going to dedicate your novel to a band, then ABBA is not a bad choice!

I absolutely loved this book. It did not make me cry, but there were many times where I thought it would, so swept up was I in the power of it. Nat’s story was a joy to read.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


4 thoughts on “Book Review – The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

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