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Customer Review

on 18 April 2012
If you like biographical historical novels of the grittier, more realistic sort then you'll probably like this.
It's the story of a real-life character, Margaret Catchpole (1762-1819), from her childhood in rural Suffolk to her death in an Australian penal colony, one of the few women of her time and class who left enough written evidence and stories behind to enable books to be written about her, both then and now.
It's been expertly researched and it's beautifully written: the author has invented an authentic-sounding voice for Margaret and we see everything through her eyes. There's an obsessive love affair at the heart of the story, with a smuggler hero and a heroine that escaped the gallows twice, so it could have been turned into a big romantic swashbuckler. But despite some exciting episodes, this is a sober and unvarnished depiction of what 18th century life was like, especially for people who teetered on the edges of society. It's about rural poverty, crime and punishment, and what could happen to women like Margaret who rejected the only two respectable options available at the time - family life or domestic service - and broke away in search of something new.
So why didn't I like it more? I definitely had problems with Margaret: everyone loves her, yet I couldn't get to grips with her at all. I didn't quite believe the love story either - just why was she so obsessed with this man? And although everything's described very well, parts of the book are very sketchy, particularly the chapters set in Australia which seem to be part of a different book altogether. I think I just wanted more emotion throughout - a few telling details here and there would have done, just to bring these people to life.
Not quite a four star read for me: it's good, just not my cup of tea. But what a great film or tv series it would make.
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