Jane Borodale’s first novel, THE BOOK OF FIRES, is a vivid portrait of 1750s England. The heroine, Agnes Trussel, leads the reader from countryside squalor to a sooty, bustling London. Part of a large family, struggling to even survive, Agnes clearly stands out from her siblings. Her interior thoughts, expertly drawn in present tense, add insight and immediacy to the tale. Finding herself at a crossroads, the teenage Agnes leaves the only place she has ever known via a wagon bound for London. Relying partially on the kindness of strangers, but mostly on her own wits, Agnes arrives wet, bedraggled and desperate on the steps of a gruff man’s home, in answer a “housemaid wanted” sign in his window. But instead of emplying her with household duties, Mr. Blacklock starts to teach her about the basic ingredients of fireworks.
Borodale’s descriptions, through Agnes’ eyes, are almost those of a synesthete. Acrid smells intermingle with hues and textures and bring to life a gritty, difficult reality. The writing is fresh and precise. She strikes a balance between exposition and story that is seemingly rare among historical fiction authors. Borodale uses an economy of language while still evoking the style of the time.
Still, the reader will have to employ some suspension of disbelief to fully enter the world which Agnes inhabits. Her acceptance into apprenticeship at a fireworks shop is fitting to her personality, if not entirely plausible. This is offset by the other details of class distinctions, and the unlikely ways in which they cross over. For example, the evening when Agnes gets to view her first fireworks display at a high society party is especially touching. The reader too has spent hours at the work bench with Agnes and is anxious to see the fruits of her labor.
This book is layered, very readable and will be particularly enjoyable to young teenage women and is an excellent foray into the world of fiction for this new novelist.
Book: Hardcover | 5.98 x 9.01in | 368 pages | ISBN 9780670021062 | 21 Jan 2010 | Viking Adult | 18 – AND UP
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