A thoroughly engaging tale of love, mystery, murder and revolt set against the backdrop of antebellum Virginia.
Counihan’s new novel begins like Dickens. A young Londoner stuck between classes in the stratified society of 19th-century England is orphaned when his mother dies of cholera. But this fatherless boy, Victor Neville, is no Oliver Twist. He has a patron in his American uncle Robert, and he’s whisked away to his rich relative’s Virginia homestead, Providence Plantation. What was Dickens now feels more like Margaret Mitchell. In the hands of a lesser author, such a transoceanic shift would seem abrupt, amateurish or unbelievable, but Counihan is no such author, and we follow him—and Victor—willingly across the Atlantic Ocean to find what new adventures await the young boy. The work then sets up like a bildungsroman that will tell the story of Victor’s maturation. But 40 pages in, the novel morphs from a simple coming-of-age tale into a mysterious, inventive take on the subgenre of plantation fiction. After his arrival in Virginia, Victor saves one of his uncle’s slaves from the sexual predations of the overseer, Murphy. In the aftermath, a violent turn of events leaves Robert and Murphy dead and Victor recovering from shock in the care of the young woman he saved, Cleo. As he and Cleo become romantically entangled, Victor witnesses a sort of soft coup that leaves the slaves in a precarious state of freedom as the Civil War looms. Throughout, Counihan writes with grace and confidence. His prose is governed by a tight economy of language that leaves few wasted words. However, his tight writing is not sparse, and it leaves room for him to indulge in both lush descriptions of land and architecture and flights of philosophical fancy. Further, his recreation of 19th-century Virginia feels historically accurate. The author’s extensive knowledge of the Civil War—Counihan has a Ph.D. in American history—serves as the tale’s foundation, never as mere ornament.
A seductively dark, wholly imaginative piece of historical fiction.