The Strange Adventures of H by Sarah Burton
But life gets better. Sent with her favourite sister Eleanor to live with her widowed aunt in London, she begins to learn acceptance and love. Unfortunately, still an innocent, she doesn’t understand Eleanor’s instructions never to enter her cousin’s bedroom alone. Roger, meanwhile, has been told that sex with a virgin is the perfect cure for venereal disease. Although he gets his comeuppance in the 1665 Great Plague, H is cast out, reduced to prostitution to survive.
Awful as this is, H is a survivor, triumphing over the trials of plague, The Great Fire of London and the precariousness of 17th-century childbirth. But, although she finds friends among her fellow sex-workers and theatricals, the shame and stigma of her profession leave her estranged from her family … at least until the final curtain.
I was drawn to the voice from the beginning and, although in many ways a tragedy, The Strange Adventures of H is a fun story with echoes – although I’m no expert – of the Elizabethan theatre of its time. But author and publisher, Legend Press, could not have predicted the uncanny echoes of our current time.
There was an air of quiet desperation everywhere. Everyone we met was fearful of everyone else, and above all it made our hearts heavy to observe how sad and serious they all were.
Scheduled for publication on the first of this month, it’s been postponed to the beginning of June when I’m hoping to pick up a paperback. If you’d like to read more about past pandemics, I can recommend Oisín Fagan’s Nobber, a darkly entertaining tale of pestilence, madness and land seizure, and To Calais in Ordinary Time by James Meek, an impressive, if challenging, linguistic achievement, exploring power, belief, gender, love and misogyny set in cataclysmic times.
Upturned Earth by Karen Jennings
Lonely and underemployed, he turns his attention to studying the flora and fauna, while trying to maintain his social standing in a community divided by race and rank. Should he cultivate a friendship with the controlling Company Superintendent and his family, with the frivolous daughter in search of a husband and her taciturn sister he’d like to impress? Should he trust his fawning servant, also the town’s jailer, or the doctor who wants to get him drunk? Is he right to turn away from Cornishman Tregowning, one of the white miners, branded a troublemaker by the Company management? Sadly, he wouldn’t even notice Noki, a Xhosa labourer, anxious about his brother who was jailed for drunkenness prior to Hull’s arrival, and is yet to be released.
When the miners are forced to work in unsafe conditions, disaster strikes. Unwell himself, Hull is sidelined, as everyone else is mobilised to help dig the trapped miners out. Watching, Hull can’t help but notice another atrocity for which he is indirectly responsible. Will he find the courage to defy the vested interests of the capitalists and put people before profit?
Coming across book blogger reviews on Twitter a few weeks ago, I was drawn to the story and to the discovery of (for me) and new small publisher of literary fiction in Holland Park Press (who kindly provided my review copy). I wasn’t disappointed and have ordered two more of this author’s novels both for my own enjoyment and to support the press at a difficult time for small businesses everywhere.
How could I read this in lockdown without thinking of health and social care staff battling coronavirus with inadequate PPE? Even worse, a news story of a private care home cutting pay because of the increased costs of the pandemic, echoed the predicament of the miners in this novel when the mine reopened.