Kirby’s assured debut depicts the travails of a displaced daughter in Victorian England.
Born to Mary Burns, a prisoner in Birmingham Gaol, infant Cora Burns is consigned to the local workhouse. She grows up there, makes one friend, Alice Salt, and excels at school, but then Alice drives her to commit a terrible crime. Her youth excuses her from prosecution, and at 16, Cora is sent to work at a nearby asylum, not knowing her mother is committed there. Like her mother, Cora has a child out of wedlock and is confined in Birmingham Gaol. Her child is also removed by authorities. This is only one of many parallels in Kirby’s multilayered narrative of grim coincidence, origin mysteries, and severed pairs, symbolized by the half medal Cora wears around her neck. Cora is determined and resourceful due to the hardships of her upbringing, but she is also capable of rage, which she mostly keeps contained—except on those unpredictable occasions when she doesn’t. Thomas Jerwood, the master of the house where Cora, upon release, is referred as a housemaid, is an amateur scientist whose treatises on nature and nurture appear every few chapters. Mrs. Jerwood is a bedridden madwoman who, when she spots Cora, upbraids her by another name, Annie. Meanwhile, Dr. Farley, resident physician at the asylum, is attempting to treat Mary Burns with hypnotherapy. His scientific observations are also interspersed in the narrative. Jerwood’s young ward (and guinea pig), Violet, befriends Cora but at times seems unusually distant, her appearance and accent slightly altered. The convoluted plot promises a thematic bombshell that never drops, although a Marxist gloss is attempted. Kirby makes no concessions to sentimentality even at the risk of alienating readers with an unappealing protagonist: Cora’s personality approaches the sociopathic as she guiltlessly exploits those around her. Still, the language is atmospheric and perfectly pitched, and the dialogue is spare and evocative.
An ambitious effort that, despite its imperfections, will keep readers riveted.