Way back in the summer (before the snow, political shenanigans and many of the deaths which made us all cry ‘go home 2016, you’re drunk!’) I went to the Harper Collins Big Book Bonanza over in Manchester. A great evening meeting colleagues from the north-west, eating pizza, drinking free wine, meeting authors and, last but not least, getting lots and lots of new books to read and review. I’m working my way through them in publication order (because that is how I roll) and I have now reached An Almond for a Parrot, a first adult novel for an author who usually writes children’s books under the name Sally Gardner. It is not uncommon for authors to write for both – think Katie Price, Mary Wesley or Andy McNab – but, after reading this, I can see why Gardner chose to use an alternative name. She keeps the historical elements she uses in her tales for younger readers and the strong strand of magic but she has added in more than a hint of the erotic.
Tully Truegood is an orphaned young woman in the mid 1700s, intelligent, passionate and possessed of strange powers which enable her not only to see the spirits of the unquiet dead but to make them visible to others. As the story begins she is in prison, and will hang if found guilty, and her trial will be a sensation. Because Tully is a high-class whore who works at the most notorious brothel in London, the Fairy House, and is said to have murdered her husband. She tells her own story from her prison cell and spares us nothing. In her childhood her widower father treated her as a servant until she was 12, when he arranged a marriage for her with a mysterious young bridegroom who immediately went to sea. This cleared his gambling debts for a short while but when he dies in debtor’s prison she throws in her lot with the woman who she thought was her stepmother but who turns out to be a brothel-keeper with taste and ambition. She finds love more than once, with men who become her protectors, but also danger, fear and violence. Finally, her erstwhile husband – a vicious young man with unsavoury tastes for brutalising very young girls – shows up to reclaim her.
Tully is an engaging character and the plot is interestingly complicated. The sex scenes are fairly graphic but not gratuitous and the language used seems right for the mid C18th setting – in fact there is quite a Moll Flanders/Fanny Hill feel to the whole thing. The magic elements, for me, fitted in quite well – it is described quite matter-of-factly, as if it were a very plausible thing – and it is a very necessary element of the plot. This is proper grown-up historical fiction (with added magic) and I hope that Gardner/Delaney writes more adult fiction in future.