If you’re a fan of Sarah Waters or Emma Donoghue (doing historical fiction), then I think you’ll like this novel—a story partly centered around Ruth, a woman boxer in Bristol in the 19th century but also following several other characters she comes in contact with—George, a gentleman with poor prospects and a penchant for gambling, and Charlotte, a wealthy young woman scarred by small pox and trapped by the men in her life. All three characters are struggling to make their way in the world—trapped in a fight that is far from fair (hence the title) but how each of them handles their circumstances differs quite a bit. Lets just say from the beginning that Ruth and Charlotte may be the fairer sex but they are a whole lot stronger.
Ruth is born in a brothel and because she does not have the looks of her sister, Dora, she is fated for a life of hard work and little reward. However, one day a suitor of Dora’s discovers that Ruth has a talent for fighting and watching a woman in the ring, facing both male and female opponents, is something that people will pay to see (and pay a lot more to wager on). Charlotte and her brother, Perry, are the sole survivors in their family after an epidemic of small pox but the normal sibling tensions they had as children have morphed into something deeper and darker—a dynamic that Charlotte can’t quite escape because her “looks” keep her from being good marriage material. The one bright spot in her life is her brother’s friend, George, who pays attention to her, much to Perry’s dismay.
To say too much more would give away the complex dance of a plot that brings the two women together in a way that changes both their lives. I loved the characters of Ruth and Charlotte and they both stayed with me long after I finished this book. If you like realistic historical fiction of the bawdy and tawdry sort, this should work well for you. Enjoy.