Born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse, Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside her.
Haunted by memories of a terrible crime, she seeks a new life working as a servant in the house of scientist Thomas Jerwood. Here, Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to the subject of a living experiment. But is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora…?
I’ve been really enjoying historical fiction of late so I jumped at the chance to be part of the blog tour for Carolyn Kirby’s debut, The Conviction of Cora Burns. When the book arrived, not only was I wowed by the beautiful cover and design (gotta love French flaps, especially when they have a gorgeous map on the inside of them) but I was thrilled to discover that the book was set in Victorian Birmingham, a city that I know well. And the story itself did not disappoint, with The Conviction of Cora Burns proving to be a deliciously dark debut.
The plot revolves around twenty-year-old Cora, a workhouse orphan recently released from prison for an unrevealed crime. With few choices available to her, Cora reluctantly takes a position as between-maid at The Larches, home of photographer and scientist Thomas Jerwood and his ward Violet.
Raised in the workhouse, Cora isn’t afraid of hard work and soon settles into her new role, despite the suspicions of her fellow staff, Jerwood’s strange habits and his wife’s intense and unexplained hatred of her. But Cora is just biding her time, waiting until she can find her childhood friend Alice Salt and begin planning a new life, free from burdens of her past in the workhouse and the gaol.
But when her employer begins to ask for her assistance in ‘testing’ his ward, Cora begins to wonder if all is as it seems at The Larches? Why does Mrs Jerwood seem to recognise Cora? What does Thomas Jerwood know about Cora’s mother? And why does Cora’s medal, a beloved keepsake from Alice, seem to match those in Jerwood’s display cabinet? As Cora delves deeper into The Larches many mysteries, she must confront the ghosts of her past in order to realise her future.
There is, as you can probably tell, quite a lot going on in this novel and it is a testament to Carolyn Kirby’s skill that she manages to weave all of the apparently disparate strands, time frames, interspersed newspaper articles and letters, together into a coherent narrative. And, remarkably, the novel never feels dense despite its complexity. Instead, it is a smoothly told and rich tale, like the literary equivalent of eating a chocolate torte.
Victorian Birmingham is brilliantly realised, from the intense poverty of the slums with its coating of soot and grime to the leafy outskirts where the upper classes live far away from the toil of the industries that support them, Kirby has created a vivid backdrop to the lives of her characters.
And those characters are an intriguing bunch. Cora herself is as hard as iron. Steely, determined and stubborn, she occasionally becomes filled with sudden and violent bursts of rage that both terrify and confuse her. Where does this violence come from? Is it the product of her difficult childhood, or an indelible taint within her nature? It is this uncertainty, and her determination to not let her past define her, that make Cora a sympathetic character in spite of her spikiness. And as the novel unfolds and the reality of what has happened to Cora becomes clearer, I only felt for her situation more.
Because there are one or two moments in this book that are not for the faint-hearted. Cora’s life has not been an easy one and there are a couple of very difficult scenes amidst Cora’s tragic past. They are, however, deftly handled – Kirby uses Cora’s trauma to deepen the development of her character and weave together the many mysteries of Cora’s past, all of which seem to have answers within the walls of The Larches.
Overall, The Conviction of Cora Burns is a rich, multi-layered tapestry of a novel, with many strands woven ingeniously together to create a compellingly intricate tale with a powerful heroine at its heart. It’s an accomplished and immersive debut that is sure to delight historical fiction fans, as well as anyone seeking an insightful and intricate read.
The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby is published by No Exit Press and is available now in paperback and ebook from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Book Depository and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review, and to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to take part in the tour.