In Agnes Trussel's world of 1750s Sussex, young farm girls who find themselves pregnant bring disgrace to their families and have few choices. They can marry the man, if he's single, or they can live in shame at home, forcing their parents to feed yet another baby. Agnes is determined not to harm her family's reputation or to marry the baby's father. She dreams of a third way out: running away.
While on an errand for her mother, Agnes finds a stash of gold coins. Realizing that this is her only chance, she steals most of them and journeys north to London. She is alone and in unfamiliar circumstances but is befriended along the way by the beautiful Lettice Talbot, who suggests that Agnes go to a particular lodging house in the city, where Agnes will be sure to find work.
Agnes, however, loses the address. As darkness descends on her first day in London, she is cold and scared. Fortunately, she notices a sign for a housekeeper. When Agnes crosses the threshold into Mr. Blacklock's house, she has no clue that she has entered into a world of science, intuition, and secrecy.
The Book of Fires grabs you from the very first paragraph. Jane Borodale does not shrink from describing the harsh realities of eighteenth-century England but neither does she dwell on them. Instead we see the world through Agnes, for whom death and drunkenness and hunger are everyday occurrences. But we also experience Agnes's wonder as she discovers that she has entered into the service of a fireworks maker, a pyrotechnist.
And here is the heart of the book. There is so much to learn about fireworks: grinding the chemicals just so, mixing them in the correct ratios, packing them perfectly so they will explode correctly. You can almost smell the gunpowder and see the bottles lined up on shelves and the mortar and pestles on the workbenches. You can feel the danger of fire or unexpected explosion.
Agnes was a very real character for me. She is fairly naive, but, after all, she grew up on a poor farm and knew nothing of the wider world. Yet she is smart and capable and concentrates on learning her new trade, all the while dreaming of fanciful solutions to her unwanted pregnancy. Blacklock is more of a mystery to both us and to Agnes, and his secrets are revealed slowly.
I'd like share a couple of quotations, so you can get a sense of Borodale's writing style. Blacklock, just after he has met Agnes:
"The world is awash with claims for knowledge." He smiles grimly. "Knowledge is like time: it forges a way forward but must look back over its shoulder to remember where it has come from. The only certain way to forge new understanding is to carry out investigations for oneself." (p. 73)Agnes discussing colors with Blacklock:
"Well . . . what about a green fire, sir? As green and poisonous as the feathered woodpecker in the pear tree at home, the unearthly bigness of its head tipping and battering at the bark for grubs. Or as green as soap made with Barbary wax, or early gooseberries with the June sun going through them. I'd want to see yellow! Scarlet, sir!" (p. 212)My only complaint about the novel is that I think it begs for an epilogue. On the other hand, perhaps we'll be lucky enough to get a sequel.
Jane Borodale has a website that includes a biography and an interesting book trailer/interview video.
Published by Pamela Dorman Books/Viking, 2010
Challenges: New Author, Historical Fiction, Global, 100+, 2010
Source: Review copy (see review policy)