I first heard about this gem of a book when Penguin emailed me with a list of their latest top picks. Something appealed to me, I’m not quite sure what, but there was something about it. So I purchased it straight away. I wasn’t disappointed! In fact, I was gripped from start to finish.
‘this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.’ There is a distinct lack of punctuation and capital letters. The teacher in me dispairs at this, but it is crucial to the development and the consequences of this novel. It shows throughout the novel the importance of literacy and of learning to the protagonist, Mary.
The book is divided into 4 sections to represent the seasons in one year. Each section starts with the above quote. She repeats in her first person narration the fact that this is her own story and that her hair is the colour of milk.
The novel opens in 1830. Mary is a teenager of indeterminate age, born with a dodgy leg and has the ability to offend with her back talking mouth. Her family: mother, father and three sisters have no use for her beyond the hard work in the fields. Work is a reoccurring image in this book. It never seems to end. In fact, Mary is not allowed to sit down during the day unless she was milking the cows. Life is hardworking and always demanding out in the fields.
The one source of kindness in her life is from her grandfather. He is a cripple as his legs were crushed; making him a permanent invalid. Her father is a man who regularly has violent tempers and beats his wife and children. Mary has spent her life observing the natural world, thus giving her native intelligence (very important for the closing of the novel.) But, she is completely uneducated and illiterate. As a result of this, she knows exactly what is happening one night when she wanders into the barnyard and sees one of her sisters getting intimate with the vicar’s son, but she has no idea what the consequences would be.
Change comes to shake up Mary’s life and Mary is sent away by her father to work for the vicar. Mary will work for the vicar, caring for his sick wife, and he will pay her father, essentially selling her to slavery. She regularly gets into trouble and pines for home, but life isn’t so bad there. She is treated with kindness and the vicar’s wife cares much about her. Yet there is a feeling of inevitability. The wife is ill, so how long will the kindness last?
The historical element of this novel is well developed and fairly apt. Being set in 1830/1831, historically, women were dictated to by the men in their lives. As the fourth daughter to an impoverished and illiterate farmer in the west of England, the author places Mary in a long line of literary heroines who are not only at the mercy of the men in their lives, but the victims of the men’s perversity. The very people who should have protected her most, her father and the vicar, are the ones who abuse their position repeatedly. The heartbreak doesn’t end there.
The vicar’s wife dies, the household servant is dismissed and Mary moves to a new position within the house. She becomes a student as the vicar teaches her to read using the Holy Bible. Mary is obsessed with learning more and the vicar is hooked on Mary. He starts to using her and sneaking into her room at night claiming loneliness as his excuse and right to rape her, in exchange for teaching her reading and writing.
However, Mary decides she’s learned enough from the vicar and puts up resistance. The vicar turns nasty and fails to understand. He continues to force her and becomes more violent. One skill that Mary has, which ultimately gives her the upper hand, as a farm girl she has killed many animals. The cheese wire in her pocket is her way out. The last time he rapes her, she has her cheese wire. Yet she never really expects to use it. But she has to, to save herself.
‘and so i shall finish this very last sentence and i will blot my words where the ink gathers in the pools at the end of each letter. and then i shall be free.’
The novel starts with this naivety, this simple hard working farming life. But there is always a feeling that something bad will happen. And boy does it.
Big love x