The Penny Heart by Martine Bailey

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The Penny Heart by Martine Bailey

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Susmita Chatto
Reviewed by Susmita Chatto
Summary: A story of confidence tricks and betrayal told in grand gothic style.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: May 2015
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1444769852

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After living a life of crime in order to scrape by, Mary Jebb is spared from the gallows – and banished to Australia. Before leaving for the penal colony of Botany Bay, she sends two engraved penny heart tokens to key players in her world. One of these takes us to Delafosse Hall, where Mary’s story meets that of shy artist Grace Moore – and yet more confidence tricks begin.

It’s impossible not to use food-related words for this book, which is a multiple course reading feast! Every chapter is prefaced by a recipe and this lends a wonderful relish to a novel that is always hearty and satisfying. I was looking forward to reading this as I really enjoyed Martine Bailey’s first novel. Following an excellent debut must be tough - but Bailey has made it look easy with this polished, sophisticated work. From the first page, I sensed this novel was going to be even better than her first and my confidence was not misplaced.

The creation of a sense of place is remarkable. Delafosse Hall and the Pen and Angel are elevated to character status by Bailey’s descriptions, which lend a filmic quality to the novel. Whether the people of the novel are hurrying through dingy streets, lurking in dark musty cellars or luxuriating in sugary confections at stylish dinner tables, Bailey makes you feel as if you are seeing through their eyes. With this immediate pull, identifying with the characters feels automatic. This is no mean feat with such a range of characters, but Bailey makes sure every one of them justifies their time in the novel.

The book incorporates elements of every writing style but the strong narrative voice is never compromised. In spite of being historical and gothic, it has a cleanness to it that feels modern; no description is unnecessary and no dialogue superfluous. I have a particular fondness for novels which feature a house so strongly it become a character, so I was bound to enjoy the mysteries of Delafosse Hall. Even then, Bailey’s writing brought out the supernatural so well that I found myself getting nervous about the Hall while reading in full sunlight.

The novel flows beautifully with switches in point of view always feeling natural. This can be particularly challenging when back story is involved but Bailey’s writing is seamless. The history is fascinating – even if you are not a history buff, the nuggets supplied here will be of general interest and I learned a good deal with reading this. In terms of exposition, there were a few moments where I thought I knew what was going to happen - but part of the pleasure of this novel is that Bailey leaves so many options and possibilities open till the very end.

There is a fullness and completeness about this novel which I found hugely satisfying. The recipes also made me think of the complexity of writing a novel – the balance of flavours, textures and colours being critical to the end result. Martine Bailey has certainly succeeded in cooking up another treat – this is a must-read novel which will appeal to wide range of readers.

If you enjoyed this you might also enjoy The Queen's Man by Rory Clements.

Booklists.jpg The Penny Heart by Martine Bailey is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books of 2015.

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Buy The Penny Heart by Martine Bailey at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Penny Heart by Martine Bailey at


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