An abused young woman rises from whoredom to respectability in Canadian YA author Holeman’s first adult novel: a lively, quite readable Victorian pastiche.
Hopefully named for the eponymous songbird by her mother, a disgraced lady’s maid who had borne her out of wedlock, Linnet Gow labors with that mother (Frances) at a bookbinder’s—until the latter’s death leaves “Linny” in the Liverpool slums and the clutches of her drunken stepfather “Ram” Munt, who employs her as a child prostitute. Linny’s fantasies of comfort and learning (she’s a passionate reader) are subjugated to the sweaty embraces of malodorous seamen and sinister “uncles.” Surviving near death, then fleeing Ram, she becomes a street whore for Dickensian procuress Blue, before being rescued by Geoffrey “Shaker” Smallpiece, a compassionate anatomy student (whose hands, alas, tremble uncontrollably). While posing as a bereaved Smallpiece cousin, Linny is befriended by an importunate acquaintance and travels to Calcutta, where unmarried Englishwomen comprise a “fishing fleet” trolling for suitable men. Linny meets suave Somers Ingram, stumbles upon his Terrible Secret and—on being assured that he has guessed hers—agrees to a marriage of mutual convenience. Linny next involves herself in the case of a Hindu Pathan falsely accused of raping a white woman (shades of Forster’s A Passage to India), rediscovers her suppressed sexuality when abducted into a Lawrencian romantic adventure in the hill country and finally becomes the real woman she hasn’t been since her preadolescence. The story is considerably less absurd than summary makes it sound, largely because Holeman creates vividly realistic characters, writes crisp dialogue and delineates her several period milieus in memorably full detail. Furthermore, she refuses to sentimentalize Linny, or reward her with a conventional happy ending (the ironic fate reserved for her has considerable power).
Overdone, but a very nice try, and well worth reading.