Sunday, 13 July 2014

Ace King Knave - Maria McCann

What the publisher says:

Behind doors is another story. Behind doors you can do what you like.

Sophia - rational, demure, and hiding a 'little weakness' - has recently married the charismatic Mr Zedland. But Zedland has secrets of his own and Sophia comes to suspect that her marriage is not what it seems.

In cramped rooms in Covent Garden, Betsy-Ann shuffles a pack of cards. A gambler, dealer in second-hand goods, and living with a grave robber, her life could not be more different to Sophia's - but she too discovers that she has been lied to.

As both women take steps to discover the truth, their lives come together through a dramatic series of events, taking the reader through the streets of 1760s London: a city wearing a genteel civility on its surface and rife with hypocrisy, oppression and violence lurking underneath.

My thoughts:

This book owes a lot to Harris's list of Covent garden ladies (of ill repute) it's a bawdy, atmospheric trip back in time to the grimy days of 18th century London, when women had two choices, marry for respectability or eke a living ANY way open to you. Between these pages we meet two women, one from each end of the social scale.

Sophia, eager to fall in love has found the man of her dreams and joy of joy, this handsome and rich suitor has proposed, her parents are delighted with this virtually arranged marriage and to her relief haven't put him off by warning him of the shameful little habit she feared would prevent her from ever sharing a marital bed.

Betsy Ann is her social opposite, living amongst thieves and gamblers in the seediest part of Covent Garden she is a country girl brought down by circumstances, she is an ex-prostitute, living with a grave robber, dealing in rotgut gin and practising sleight of hand with cards.

Titus is a young black slave, serving in the household of Edward, Sophias intended. Loyal to his master he resents the new mistress almost as much as she is appalled by his seeming insolence and sloppy, unfortunate speech impediment.
We are also introduced to the Bawdy house run by Kitty Hartry.

These lives come together in a clash of cultures amidst the seething morass of London which contains the seediest of low lifes and those striving to achieve and maintain respectability. Sophia's husband is the lynch pin who holds this disparate bunch together and he proves to be a multi layered character.

This book is provided with an extensive glossary of 18th century terms which are scattered throughout the dialogue like dried up raisins and bitter candy peel in a rich plum pudding. They made it rather difficult reading for me as I just had to keep checking and re-checking to see what they all meant, many of them were coarse and vulgar, they really helped make the narrative seem authentic yet at times I felt the author had used just one or two "dimber cove" too many.

The story unfolds into a lavishly descriptive rollicking bawdy romp through the brothels and gambling dens of Covent Garden. A hugely enjoyable peep through a keyhole so degenerate you'd have to pinch your nose as you lowered yourself to peer through.

It's a vivid and pungent tale told with panache and showcasing the skill of the detailed historical research undertaken.

I must admit to a slight disappointment with the ending, such a boisterous novel seems worthy of somehow a touch more than it finally delivers, but this is just nit picking as the overall story really is gratifying in its own right. A superb celebration of bawdiness and deception.

My thanks to who kindly provided my review copy.

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