I ‘discovered’ this book by accident, while browsing the author tables at the Historical Novel Society conference in London. I was intrigued by the blurb; I have an instinctive interest in debut novels, even though this one has been out for several years, and my work-in-progress is also set in two time periods. Enough hooks there for me to buy a copy, and it proved to be an intelligent, beautifully written book that kept me reading late into the night. I found myself re-reading some passages purely to appreciate the prose.
Both main characters are finely drawn. The book opens in 1819 as the Peterloo massacre is witnessed by a crippled officer, a survivor of the Napoleonic wars. The story of his wartime traumas, and of his lost and secret love, is interwoven with the story of a rebellious, teenage girl in 1976. She has been parked with an uncle in the crumbling mansion that was once the officer’s home. Both characters are written in the first person, a technically challenging approach that works well in this book. Ms Darwin has also managed to write very convincingly from a male as well as female point of view.
There are one or two minor implausibilities that somehow added to my enjoyment of the book. The officer is much more explicit in his memoirs than, I suspect, any Regency gentleman would be, even in private, and the 1976 teenager is wonderfully articulate for a girl of her background. The character of Lucy is probably more fiercely independent and liberal than any Regency lady would be allowed to be, given the restrictions of that era, but her character is delightful for those traits and by the end of the book I was perhaps a little in love with her myself.
However, some of the interactions in the 20th century sections would today be given the label of ‘abuse’, even though they are written with immense tenderness through the eyes of a willing ‘victim’. That conflict was the only discomfort that remained as I finished a thoroughly satisfying read.
I shall certainly look out for more of Emma Darwin’s work.