The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale

The clock is ticking for 17-year-old Agnes Trussel. It is 1752, she is pregnant, unmarried and after stealing coins from an elderly neighbour has run away from her family in Sussex to the city of London. Her desperate search for work leads her to the home and workshop of one Mr. Blacklock, fireworks maker, where she asks for housekeeping work, and ends up as his apprentice.

Here she slowly gains the trust of the broody, heartbroken man as she assists him in his self-consuming quest to make the best fireworks London has ever seen. All the while, she is desperately scheming to either find a husband – fast – to end her pregnancy or to somehow give up her child without being discovered. Her days are numbered – a pregnancy can only be hidden for so long.

I had a hard time with this novel, as I am not a fan of many books with first person, present tense narrative (I am measuring the ingredients as we are discussing the chemistry *not an actual quote). Yet I was fascinated by the story – I love anything set in this time period, and it is so rare to have a novel set in the 18th century focusing on the darker side of human relations and social expectations. Borodale paints a wonderfully horrific picture of London in the 1750s with all its dirt, crime, poverty and disease.

The relationship between Anges and Mr. Blacklock had some very Jane Eyre/Mr. Rochester overtones. He is clearly enraptured – yet still longs for his dead wife. She has no idea that a man of his status, and so many years her senior could ever have feelings for her, and so sets her sights elsewhere. Their ending is perhaps more similar to another Bronte novel, if not in detail, certainly in its darkness.

Great story and touching romance. Very impressive first novel. I would like to read more from Jane Borodale.

Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); Reprint edition (December 28, 2010)
ISBN-10: 014311848X
ASIN: B005B1IANM


The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

Daughter to Aristotle, Pythias is intelligent, curious and stubbornly independent  also rather unfortunately, she is a girl – a condition which blocks her from the schools, books and debates she craves. Her privileged societal status means that her quirky and at times shocking interests (dissections! bird skeletons! swimming!) are tolerated by her family and those that surround them, though barely.

When the death of Alexander the Great results in her family’s exile, Pythias must help guide her ageing father in keeping them safe, fed and sheltered. There are many offering help: male and female, rich and poor, even the gods and goddesses. Pythias quickly discovers that her wit, beauty and female charms are both an asset to be wielded and a huge risk for all involved.

Always a fan of historical fiction, I greatly enjoyed reading The Sweet Girl. Yet I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I don’t really know if I properly understood what was happening at all times, what Lyon’s intent or message was. The writing style was … for lack of a better descriptor: dense. There were snippets of magical realism, yet as it wasn’t carried through the whole narrative it was a struggle to realize where the fantasy began and ended. I wasn’t 3/4 though the novel when I had already decided I was going to reread this in the next year or two, to fully grasp the meaning.

That may sound like a criticism (technically, yes it is) but I will say I look forward to rereading it. Pythias was a fascinating character. I have read very little from this period and there was much to absorb and learn of the culture and norms of the day.

Well worth a read, but be sure to allow yourself the time to take it all in.

Long-listed for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Random House Canada (Sep 18 2012)
ISBN-10: 0307359441
ISBN-13: 978-0307359445