About the Book
Nobody knows yet that she is a murderer…
Abandoned at the gates of a London park one winter’s night in 1850, baby Lily Mortimer is saved by a young police constable and taken to the London Foundling Hospital. Lily is fostered by an affectionate farming family in rural Suffolk, enjoying a brief childhood idyll before she is returned to the Hospital, where she is punished for her rebellious spirit. Released into the harsh world of Victorian London, Lily becomes a favoured employee at Belle Prettywood’s Wig Emporium, but all the while she is hiding a dreadful secret…
Across the years, policeman Sam Trench keeps watch over the young woman he once saved. When Sam meets Lily again, there is an instant attraction between them and Lily is convinced that Sam holds the key to her happiness – but might he also be the one to uncover her crime and so condemn her to death?
Format: Hardcover (288 pages) Publisher: Vintage
Publication date: 11th November 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction
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Subtitled ‘A Tale of Revenge’, the narrative moves back and forth in time between Lily’s early years spent with a foster family, her time at the London Foundling Hospital and her subsequent employment at Belle Prettywood’s Wig Emporium. Throughout the book Lily is convinced that the crime she has committed will one day be discovered and that she will be condemned to death as a result. The circumstances of the crime are only revealed towards the end of the book, posing the question whether a crime of this nature can ever be justified even if its motivation is to save others.
The book has echoes of the novels of Charles Dickens in the way it describes the experiences of those unfortunate enough to find themselves orphans. However, the cruel treatment experienced by the children taken in by the London Foundling Hospital is of a more extreme, and perverted, nature than anything found within the pages of Oliver Twist. That treatment is in stark contrast to the affection Lily experiences from her foster family, Nellie and Perkin Buck and their three sons, on their farm in Suffolk. That idyllic existence comes to a sudden end when, at the age of six, Lily is removed from the family and returned to the Foundling Hospital. There, along with the other foundlings, she is ordered to ‘forget absolutely’ those who cared for her during the first years of her life; indeed she is told her foster family looked after her only because they were paid. The foundlings’ position is compared to slaves whose masters care nothing for them, but recognise only their monetary value. ‘You are like them… You are like those slaves. For did you not work for the people paid to care for you?’ In fact, Lily is cruelly beaten when, in an early expression of defiance, she attempts to write a letter to Nellie Buck.
A further cruel feature of the system is the way the foundlings are regarded as being the ‘carriers’ of the sins of their mothers – not their fathers, note. They are told they possess an innate wickedness, ‘a blood-wickedness which could lead then into deep thickets of sin and transgression’. Only through obedience and hard work can they pay for the supposed degeneracy of their mothers. As it transpires, wickedness and degeneracy is the province of others, particularly one especially monstrous character.
I found the absence of chapter breaks and the sudden unannounced changes in timeline (at least in my ARC) rather distracting and left me confused at times. However, whatever reservations I may have had about the book’s structure, there’s no doubt about the author’s ability to create beautiful prose. For example, when Lily and her friend, Bridget, travel through the countryside as evening falls in search of a place of refuge. ‘The air they breathed had a taste to it of things burned and gone. And it was not still. It moved in strange patterns, like a wispy black scarf threatening to touch their faces, then suddenly disappearing to reveal the way ahead..’
A side plot involves Lily search for the mother who abandoned her. The book also depicts Lily’s growing friendship with her employer, the irrepressible and flamboyant Belle, and Lily’s confused feelings towards Sam who is both her guardian angel but also the person who might bring her to justice.
Lily is a character you can’t help rooting for and, although bleak at times, the book has great period atmosphere and a touching ending that offers a little ray of light in the darkness.
I received an advance review copy courtesy of Vintage via NetGalley.
In three words: Dark, moving atmospheric
Try something similar: A Book of Secrets by Kate Morrison
About the Author
Rose Tremain’s best-selling novels have won many awards, including the Baileys Women’s Prize, the Whitbread Novel of the Year, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Prix Femina Etranger. Restoration, the first of her novels to feature Robert Merivel, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She lives in Norfolk and London with the biographer Richard Holmes. (Photo/bio: Goodreads author page)