Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (1st February 2018)
Print Length: 352 pages
Laura Carlin’s debut novel is a historical tale that projects 1830's London onto the canvas of the reader's imagination. With an exacting and totally believable use of the vernacular, and with succinct descriptions that delicately balance on a fulcrum teetering between moral outrage and hopeless inevitability, the novel draws you into Hester White's world; a world of Dickensian proportions.
Orphaned at the age of eleven, Hester's orderly life as the daughter of a Lincolnshire parson is abruptly cut short. With no other option than to go and live with her family's erstwhile gardener, Hester is thrown into the swirl of grime, poverty, and criminality that defines the lifestyle of London's underclass. It's a life where thieving and drunkenness compete to distract the vagrant populace. And this is a distraction sorely needed for there are regular and unexplained disappearances from within their number. Is abduction and/or murder being serially committed within their midst? And if so, is the perpetrator no respecter of age or gender. For children and women appear equally susceptible to this manifestation of evil along with adult males.
It is in this atmosphere of fear and vulnerability that the teenage Hester is seemingly accidentally struck down by a horse-drawn carriage and whisked away. Ultimately finding herself transported to Waterford Hall, Hester discovers that she is to become the subject of a scientific experiment exploring the possibility of educating the vagrancy.
Initially Waterford Hall appears to be an idyllic alternative to London's bleak underbelly, but Hester's hopes are soon to be confronted by unpalatable rumours that circulate among the servants. Is she liable to become just another victim? Her name added to the list of victims that flows so easily between the staff below stairs. Into this scenario comes salvation from a most unlikely source. A source that gives Hester hope — and the promise of nurturing her emerging sexuality. But is this true salvation, or a blow designed to deceive and to exploit?
Throughout, the characters are delineated with precise detail that cannot fail to elicit empathy. In addition, the backdrop these characters inhabit is so effectively recreated that you'll almost hear the grind of futile labour amid the putrid fog of London, and smell the delicate fragrance of gillyflower that pervades the rural escape offered Hester. The fast-paced narrative effortlessly propels the reader along with Hester into the vortex of the expertly crafted, and totally unpredictable, denouement. With an unexpected twist embedded, it had me eagerly reading to the very last sentence.
This is a delightful tale, delightfully told, and it was a delight to read. I'll be keeping a keen eye, looking for Laura Carlin's next novel.