This might be an historical crime novel, set below stairs in Victorian England, but it’s about a far from cosy crime as you can imagine. This is a gritty, character-driven thriller with a deeply conflicted yet credible protagonist. Cora Burns pretty much sums up the capacity of the human spirit to overcome adversity… although the odds are seriously stacked against her.
Uneducated but intelligent: bloodied but unbowed, Cora has the potential to escape the misery of a shattered family, to escape the consequences of a childhood blighted by poverty and cruelty. Can she overcome this psychologically crippling inheritance? Are we forever fated by the lives of our forebears?
These are the central issues which ‘The Conviction…’ challenges head-on, and it does so with a fine eye for period detail. Author Carolyn Kirby creates an uncomfortably convincing version of 19th century Birmingham. At first it feels a tiny bit like a BBC costume drama, but stick with it – she soon steers away from the accepted norms of historical fiction to dig deep into the warped psyche of her heroine.
Cora has a dark past, no doubt about it, one which is skilfully revealed in tantalising episodes that run parallel to the central story. And it’s a story which is stuffed full of shady secrets and hidden mysteries, delivered with gothic intensity and occasionally gruesome interludes.
While Cora herself is a wonderful character, a fully-fledged, complex individual of depth and substance, the villain of the piece felt to me like a scapegoat for every white, middle-aged male who gets told off for inappropriately holding doors open. He’s a liar and a coward, dishonest in print and in person; a philanderer and an abuser; a bigot and a misogynist; condescending and cold-hearted.
In short he’s something of a caricature of the wicked Victorian scientist who gave credence to the idiocy that became eugenics and contributed to the genocides of the 20th century. He serves a perfect purpose in this story, but I wanted him to be as fully-fledged (or at least as understandable) as Cora.
The episode of self-harm also struck me as being slightly unlikely. It seemed like a modern phenomenon which sat awkwardly in this era. There may well be documented evidence that distraught young women of this time cut themselves… but it felt out of place in this situation.
Even with those minor misgivings, I hugely enjoyed my time with Cora Burns. The sinister side of the nature / nurture debate, and the powerful depiction of a young woman struggling to overcome gross inequalities make this far more than an average historical crime novel. It’s a great start, and I hope to read much more from Carolyn Kirby in future.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby is available at Amazon
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