Poor, pregnant English country girl flees to London and a new life as a firework-maker’s assistant.
Borodale sets her promising debut in the mid-18th century, when the enclosure of common land deprived the rural poor of their traditional rights of access and led to hunger, crime and savage punishment. Narrator Agnes Trussel, ruined after succumbing to sex with a village boy, describes herself as “a thief, a disgrace and a deserter” as she decides to forsake her impoverished family in Sussex and head for the capital with money she has stolen from a dead neighbor. The 17-year-old finds London a crowded, filthy and dangerous place, yet fortune shines on Agnes; she is taken in by Mr. Blacklock, a pyrotechnician who needs a helper with nimble fingers. The plot stalls as Agnes learns her craft and hides her condition, gaining Blacklock’s respect for her intelligence and deftness while also catching the eye of a gunpowder supplier she hopes to marry as a way out of her predicament. When this plan founders, she falls back on a more dangerous scheme, but her attempts at abortion fail too. Borodale dodges one obvious ending only to opt for another that is marginally less obvious, building in tidy resolutions to issues of deceit, guilt and sacrifice en route.
Sympathetic storytelling with a hint of freshness compensates for slack pacing and excessive detail.