Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance

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Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Elaine Dingsdale
Reviewed by Elaine Dingsdale
Summary: Mary Helsall, beginning work in Chester in the 1750s shows us a world of horror and grief, whilst she follows her own specific agenda - attempting to secure the release of her husband from prison. What is her secret-and how will her relationship with the shadowy characters at the infirmary and prison develop?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 400 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Picnic Publishing Ltd
ISBN: 978-0955861345

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Mary Helsall began work as a nurse in Chester in 1756, but she was rather impatient and caring for others didn't come naturally to her. Her solution was gin and oblivion - and a volatile relationship with a hospital porter, but it was only when a diseased beggar came to the hospital for treatment that it became clear that Mary had secrets to hide.

This debut novel is by a very talented author indeed. The front cover bears the legend jolts the reader into Hogarth's world with a vengeance - and this exactly encapsulates the breadth of the novel. In many ways it was a disturbing read (not one to be read late at night!), due to the very vivid descriptive scenes. Admittedly, the horror and squalor of the environment was one of the many strengths of this wonderful novel, but I personally could only manage to read it a few chapters at a time - it's certainly not a novel for a squeamish reader.

Interspersed in the main storyline, we have alternate, brief chapters which give us glimpses of Mary's former lifestyle. Based in a coastal village nearby, she and her husband were involved with the local smuggling ring, and this is fundamental to our understanding of the situation in which they now find themselves. These chapters are brief, and give minimal detail - almost a snapshot of their former life. Information is fed to us slowly, but consistently, and so we build up a well rounded portrait of their earlier life.

But these scenes aren't as evocative and 'real' as the scenes which unfold in Chester. The city truly comes alive, with scenes, smells, tastes all being virtually palpable. The city becomes a character in its own right, and Rance's descriptive scenes are excellent - we literally feel as if we're walking the rows with Mary - I jumped when she was accosted! The more detailed scenes which unfolded in the hospital and jail were simply stunning. A few words managed to paint a very vivid and frightening portrait of these institutions, their inmates and gaolers - indeed theses terms would apply equally well to either of the institutions.

As the central protagonist, Mary is wonderful. Initially overwhelmed by the city, she gradually grows in boldness and stature. She's an extremely complex character, and I was often surprised at her actions. Emboldened by her increasing reliance on gin (the 'kill-grief' of the title), she becomes progressively more devious in her fight for survival, and towards the conclusion of the novel, she is a very different character to the almost timid girl of the outset.

Her relationships, past and present with the other characters - male and female - also add to the enigma. In her native village she was envied, and indeed, on her arrival in Chester, appeared almost as a slightly aloof character. Females envy her, males are drawn to her. What is the secret behind her relationship with the hospital benefactors… why does she turn to the porter for comfort… how much of her earlier life can we believe, or was some of it mere fantasies… so many meaty dilemmas to ponder in this wonderful book.

The other characters are very well depicted. The lecherous surgeons, the domineering matron, the weak porter, and the enigmatic Hartingshall: all play vital roles in both the development of the plot, and Mary's difficult journey. Sympathies abound for many of the characters - even the dislikeable ones.

Overall, this was a wonderful novel. The plot was well developed, and progressed at a good pace - quick enough to keep the reader turning the pages, but slow enough to keep us guessing. The characters were magnificent, encouraging us to sympathise with their ghastly lifestyle, and simultaneously back away from the squalor they represented. There was no part of this novel which I can fault - it was simply a great read, and I do hope the author writes more in this vein - well done Ms Rance!

I'd like to thank the author for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Journal of Dora Damage by Belinda Starling.

Buy Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance at

Buy Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Kill-Grief by Caroline Rance at


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