"The Caseroom" by Kate Hunter is set in the St Leonards and Canonmills areas of Edinburgh at the very end of the nineteenth century, areas which were at the heart of Britain's print industry at the time. It serves not just as a documentary of the events that took place there, though those events are brought starkly and eloquently to life, but it also places centre stage the lives of one small group of people. The result is to enrich the narrative and to allow the reader to see the Edinburgh of the day through the eyes of the main character, Iza.
Meet the Ross family. They comprise matriarch Vi, father James, and their five children: brothers Rab, Jamie and William, and sisters Violet and Iza. There have been other children, but, as was common at the time, they died in infancy. The eldest, Rab, is a union man through and through. Brusque and opinionated, he readily speaks his mind, even when that puts him at odds with his sister, Iza. Jamie is the quiet one; hard working, he becomes a dedicated husband and father. Violet is the headstrong oldest girl. Having found work in a shop, she marries well and settles happily as both wife and mother. William is the youngest. Bookish and independent, he dreams of travelling the world. And then there is Iza. The youngest girl, she sees her future in the workplace. As a compositor in the printworks, she has what many at the time believed should be exclusively a "man's job". When she eventually marries and becomes a mother, she continues to work, juggling both work and family in a manner that was still unusual half a century later.
"The Caseroom" charts the life of this ordinary family, working hard within the print industry to earn and living and to make ends meet. The relationships and inevitable tensions within the family are set against a background of uncertainty brought about by industrial disputes, union efforts to exclude women and the rise of movements supporting women's rights and suffrage. We see life through the eyes of Iza from the age of 13 as she first embarks upon her working life, through the loss of her father to industrial disease, to her first love and the birth of her first child, and to her later marriage and the birth of her son. Iza, like all of us, finds it hard to make the right decisions in life and suffers anxieties about whether she has done the right thing. Will her choices make her happy? Is she the daughter she feels she should be? Is she a good wife and mother? Is she being true to herself?
This is a story that could have be written about a modern family making their way in today's world, and it would still have rung true. What Kate Hunter does with her writing is lay bare the frailties of human life and human experience. She shows the reader that whoever we are, and wherever and whenever we are, our lives are littered with the same highs and lows, the same great joys and deep anxieties, and she reminds us that we each have the power to tackle what life sends our way. Does Iza get answers to her questions? Does she find her happy ending? You'll have to read this beautifully crafted novel to find out.