Caroline Rance’s debut novel is set in the mid-eighteenth century in the town of Chester. She evokes the squalor and depravity of the area from the outset and doesn’t spare our senses with the sounds and smells of the time. My history teacher once told me that if I were to be transported back in time then, on alighting my time machine, I would be physically sick at the smell; Rance’s narrative brought those words of my teacher flooding back. From the first chapter, the emphasis on filth, disease “scabs and weeping blisters” form a thick and dirty backdrop to the story. It could be argued that there is a dense metaphorical atmosphere given all that grime and filth which could be seen as oppressive. However, I suspect that this may be more to do with historical accuracy than metaphor.
The heroine of the story is Mary Helsall, whose connections with an unlikely series of characters are revealed as the mysterious plot unfolds. Mary proves herself to have a stomach of iron given the descriptions of the medical procedures that she both witnesses and undertakes as a nurse. This gruelling job is not her major struggle, however, as those connections with others – the patient, the wealthy gentleman, the hospital doctor and a prisoner in the belly of the Northgate are revealed. As we start to understand her past, Mary begins to blot it out - developing a penchant for the gin of the title ‘Kill-Grief’ which starts to threaten any prospect of a more satisfying future.
The narrative is thick with references to Chester, the geography, the buildings and to the rather gruesome medical practices at the time. This makes it a convincing and fascinating historical novel. In the background to this story was an equally fascinating tale of wrecks and wrecking, the benefit to those who lived harsh and poverty-stricken lives by stripping anything of value from a wreck and the inevitable power-struggles and exploitation that went with that. The dark story of power, violence and disloyalty that surrounded this element of the story underpinned Mary’s secrets and struggles but could have played an even greater part. The story of the shipwreck that has brought Mary to where she is now is revealed in a series of flashbacks which demand close attention from the reader – although this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Although this is a period piece, it still deals with contemporary issues: love, loyalty, power, class, money, duty and independence. Particularly, the difficulties face by a woman in a man’s world given that men often hold most of the economic power. It is a triumph of an independent will in the face of challenge and adversity.
Rance’s characters are fascinating bunch ranging from the grotesque and sinister to the innocent and naive but all with their own pasts, relationships and motivations many of them reflecting the grotty, hopeless environment in which many of them inhabited. Only Anthony, Mary’s love interest, seemed - to me - a little unconvincing. I just could not see what Mary, a feisty, courageous heroine, would see in him. And neither did the other characters. But then, maybe that is what makes Mary such an independent and wilful heroine, because ultimately she does what she wants to do regardless of the expectations of others.
It is a debut novel, an impressive one, and I will be pre-ordering the next.