Agnes Trussel, a trusting young girl, is badly used by a forceful rogue in her home village, causing her to flee with a secret pregnancy and a neighbor’s coins. She lands in London in the winter of 1752. The streets of the city are harsh, even for those accustomed to them, but for a 17-year-old unwed mother from the country, they can be nothing less than terrifying.
On her way, Agnes meets Lettice Talbot, a beautiful woman not much older than herself. They happen to share a leg of Agnes’s journey on the carriage from Sussex. Lettice offers Agnes hope, along with an address. But once they have disembarked, Agnes becomes lost in the maze of alleys and lanes, and the dawning of a dark panic starts to set in as night draws near. Just as she is about to give up, she spies a sign --- “J. Blacklock. Required – housekeeper for small household” --- and finds the courage to knock on the door.
J. Blacklock looks her over and, saying little, hires her, but not as a housekeeper. He is in need of an assistant in his business as a maker of fireworks, and something about the small girl on his doorstep tells him that he may have found just the person he needs. He soon discovers he chose well, for Agnes shows a near-endless curiosity and a rare talent for pyrotechnics. She is frankly entranced, marveling at the art of it: “So fireworks are made by hand, in the same way as hurdles are, or pipes or horseshoes; they are not freakish works of nature nor of witchcraft, as I’d thought when I was little….I have heard how they are like fizzing, white blossoms, a cold kind of devil’s fire.”
The problem lies with the child growing inside her. So far, Agnes has been able to keep her “condition” secret, but that will not last much longer. Unwed mothers were not looked kindly upon during that period in England’s history. Agnes knows that her situation is growing more and more desperate. Thus, when one of Blacklock’s material suppliers shows an interest in her, she tries to push it into a hasty proposal of marriage.
Pushing her even more is the other household staff. They seem to be watching her, waiting for her to slip up. She fears that when they find out that she is pregnant, she will have no hope of continuing her position with Blacklock. But nothing is as it seems. Agnes has misjudged her suitor, her employer, and even the cook and the maid. And then there’s Lettice Talbot, who finally turns up, only not as the person Agnes thought her to be.
Jane Borodale surrounds her readers with all five senses vividly engaged as she unravels Agnes Trussel’s story. London comes alive in her capable hands: the bustle of the street markets can almost be heard, and you can almost smell the rank odors of the rotting meats the vendors are hawking. You can almost see the dust from the cobblestones swirling in the wind, and you can almost feel the trickle of sweat running down your back on the hot, sticky summer days. As the author uses sensory details to draw you in, she also uses the interweaving of fire at every turn to bind it all together. Borodale deserves a celebration with fireworks for this book.
Reviewed by Kate Ayers on April 28, 2011