Writer: Noel O’Reilly
Publishing House: HarperCollins
Date of Publication: June 14th 2018
Rating: 5 stars
”Time had stopped and God had turned His back on the world.”
Cornwall, 20 years after the Napoleonic Wars. Life in the isolated village of Porthmorvoren is hard. Living in extreme poverty, battling with the formidable weather conditions and the sea, the villagers have been practicing a macabre hunt, stealing valuables and liquor from the bodies that are washed ashore. Until the limits are crossed and punishment must follow. Amidst the troubling events, a young woman is trying to escape the vile circle, seeking a better life. When she rescues a Methodist minister, everything is turned upside down to unknown results…
This is one of those books you approach with extreme caution. Cornwall, Bodmin, smugglers, Methodist communities…It all sounds too familiar when you have read and loved Jamaica’s Inn by Daphne du Maurier. Thankfully, O’Reilly knew that there can be no comparisons and chose a different path for his story. He composes a tale that takes place in a wild and unforgiving land and a community whose inhabitants are cruel and merciless. Drunkards, criminals, violent creatures whose only thought is how to find the necessary pennies to pay for the night’s liquor. The women in the village are eager to find a husband at all costs and then they eagerly regret their choice. The elders are willing to point the finger at anyone who will try to deviate from the established hierarchy. God is nowhere to be found. This community is so horrible that even Satan would be wary to do business with them. Mary Blight is the only human being with common sense, intelligence, and ambition, fighting against monsters. But if you let your defenses down, you are bound to pay the price.
”The old ruin was no more than a great, cold tomb, full of the bones of the dead. In daylight’s first glimmers, the pews took ghostly form, and a pale shape with outstretched wings dropped out of the black depths of the tower and floated over my head through the nave.”
I loved the way O’Reilly constructed the story of Mary within the fascinating setting of Cornwall. We are introduced to the village ethics and when we are transferred to the towns across the moors we understand that the so-called privileged society doesn’t differ one iota from the fishermen and their wives. Mary has to cope with prejudice, preconceived notions of propriety, class and femininity and the secretive nature of a man who uses God as a smokescreen to avoid dealing with his own faults.
”It was only an owl, home from its night haunts. Outside on the moor, the world slowly filled with sound, of birdsong, the lowing of cows and the bleating of sheep.”
Cornwall is the proper place for the unfolding of dark tales and this is a dark tale. There are no ghosts but the worst type of darkness that exists in people’s hearts. Hypocrisy and jealousy, blaming our own vile mistakes and decisions to God, denying responsibility, envying the ones who are able to make their lives better. All we need to do is to destroy them because we can’t follow their example. Mary is a beautiful character, realistic, vivid and feisty without seeming fake. Personally, I fully understood her motives and thoughts and she is the perfect personification of the untamed, rebellious nature of Cornwall.
Full of haunting descriptions and a well-constructed plot, O’Reilly comments on the themes of despair and treachery, earthly love and spiritual adoration, struggle and retribution in a fine and memorable example of Historical Fiction.
”Can’t I look at a pretty view and enjoy it without thinking Bible thoughts? You can pick a leaf off any tree and wonder at its colour and shape, at the veins that run through it, so like those on the backs of our hands. The Maker lets the skylark soar and sing her heart out in any way she pleases, so why must we cage our feelings and not let them out. This land lives in me, is in my soul.”