The Night Flower by Sarah Stovell

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The Night Flower by Sarah Stovell

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: Two women of very different class backgrounds meet on a convict ship from London to Van Diemen's Land, where their lives as mothers will become enmeshed in crime and melancholy. A somewhat bleak, but still distinctive and well-drawn, character study.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Tindal Street
ISBN: 9781906994211

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Fourteen-year-old Miriam Booth is a Romany gypsy from the Newcastle slums who, like the titular waif in Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, is an orphan who lives by her wits but becomes drawn into a ring of house-breaking crime. In 1842 she is caught and sentenced to seven years' transportation to a convict colony in Australia.

Meanwhile, Rose Winter, a widowed governess with three young children of her own, fears she will slowly go mad if she continues to be separated from her family. Her father, who persisted in the prosperous African slave trade after abolition, is now in prison, a vicarious offence that blights Rose's own prospects in life. In her desperation to escape servitude and be reunited with her children, she, too, commits a crime against society's mores, and her sentence will match Miriam's: seven years in Van Diemen's Land.

The two women's stories collide when they sail on the same ship from London, The Marquis of Hastings. Shipboard conditions are appalling: filthy, reeking and rife with disease, though any woman with money to spare, or the willingness to act as 'wife' to one of the sailors, can buy herself a better passage in one of the upper decks. Rose secures a comfortable cabin for herself and her youngest daughter, Arabella, who has been allowed to travel with her, but Miriam is stuck down below, where she befriends Ma Dwyer, a former brothel-keeper who serves as her surrogate mother.

From the outset Stovell sets up a tragic link between transgression and pregnancy; having a baby is never a joyous accident, but always a wicked mistake that entails drastic consequences for the mother. Any woman found to be with-child on board the convict ship is subject to severe punishment, and on arrival in Australia, the reprisals are no less harsh. With pregnancy equated to sin, motherhood is an ambivalent prospect at best.

Upon arrival at Van Diemen's Land, Miriam and Rose escape the horrors of Cascades Factory for Women when the Reverend Sutton hires them to work at his nursery for convict babies. Reverend Sutton, one of the strongest characters, is a horrible hypocrite who denounces sexuality yet is the next-door brothel's best customer; 'half of him is good', one character notes – 'the half the rest of the world sees. The other half is bad all the way through to the core.' When Miriam falls in love with his son John, she too becomes entrapped in the cycle of iniquity and retribution that surrounds female sexuality. Rose is by turns her confidante and her judge as they, with the help of Ma Dwyer, plot an escape from this oppressive atmosphere where the value of motherhood is denied.

One of the unique aspects of the novel is its narration in the two main characters' distinct voices. Miriam speaks in a slang-filled dialect that reflects her lower-class upbringing: in the opening line of the novel, she confides, 'We was Gypsies.' Thus, from the first sentence onwards, readers have Miriam's informal voice contrasting with Rose's more elevated diction. Yet switching between the two characters' perspectives is never confusing, because the voices are immediately distinguishable by their use of vernacular and their level of grammatical sense. Rose's use of language is in fact rather beautiful and poetic, encompassing both her present thoughts and nostalgic passages from her diaries, as in 'I am becoming a sculptor of time – chiselling away the days, hoping for something beautiful to appear in what's left.'

The inclusion of letters, diary entries and court documents lends an epistolary element to the novel, which makes it even more convincing as a Victorian pastiche. As with Nell Leyshon's The Colour of Milk (a retelling of Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles) or Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, readers can enjoy the challenging task of sifting through female criminals' own words to decide their guilt or innocence.

With its gritty look at the grim realities of Victorian sexuality, including prostitution, abortion and venereal disease, The Night Flower also resembles Janette Jenkins's Little Bones and Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White. Indeed, there seems to be a whole class of books nowadays that seek to expose the sometimes shocking sexual truths behind the repressed image of the Victorian period. The Night Flower is one of the more successful entries in that subgenre – a somewhat bleak, but still distinctive and well-drawn, character study.

She Rises by Kate Worsley is another gritty historical tale of shipboard adventure, whilst The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling provides a closer look at another distasteful side of Victorian sexuality, the pornography trade. For a comparatively brighter story of desperate motherhood in an antipodean setting, try The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman. You might also appreciate Exquisite by Sarah Stovell.

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