It’s hard to believe that this accomplished and potent historical tale is a first novel—a sentiment repeatedly echoed by the rapturous reviews that greeted its initial publication in England in 2001.
British author McCann has set it during the period of the mid–17th-century English Civil War, and incarnated the righteous as well as barbaric energies of that time in her protagonist Jacob Cullen: a brawny, brooding outcast whose forbidden love ennobles, engulfs, and all but destroys him. Jacob’s critical flaw is his uncontrollable temper, which we first glimpse when he and his brothers (charismatic, handsome Zebedee and gentle, forbearing Isaiah), ruined by their landowning family’s financial collapse, labor as manservants at Beaurepair, a wealthy nobleman’s estate. The specter of an unsolved murder hangs over Beaurepair, and when the brothers’ furtive reading of “seditious” literature is reported, the three flee Beaurepair, and Jacob—married in haste, bereft of his young wife—is swept into an alternately perilous and fulfilling adventure. He is “rescued” by soldiers in rebel Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, takes part in (unsparingly detailed) sieges against the Army’s declared (mostly Catholic) enemies, and discovers his true nature when he falls in love with Christopher Ferris, a softspoken widower who at first reluctantly, at last wholeheartedly, yields to Jacob’s sexual importunings. The necessarily secret affair that binds, then divides the two men (as Jacob’s lack of self-control continuously flares up) imparts tremendous drama to lengthy sequences depicting their intimacy during the war, a long stay in London with Ferris’s doting aunt, and the experiment in communal farming that excites Ferris’s (unpopular and dangerous) democratic ideals and rouses all of Jacob’s festering suspicions and resentments. The inevitable climax, which carries a genuinely tragic charge, is superior even to the densely packed, brilliant pages that precede it.
A genre-transcending, irreplaceable work: historical fiction at its very best.