Sunday, January 3, 2010

The intersection of art and science in Georgian London

The Book of Fires
by Jane Borodale

With her debut novel, The Book of Fires, Jane Borodale has written a meticulous period drama with a memorable heroine. In the fall of 1752, seventeen-year-old Agnes Trussel finds herself in the family way. Nearly paralyzed with fear and shame, when opportunity presents itself Agnes abandons her family home in the country and makes her way alone to London. Almost miraculously, she finds shelter and a job assisting widower John Blacklock, an artisan manufacturer of fireworks.

Somewhat uncomfortably, Agnes becomes a member of the small household. And by Blacklock's side she learns the tools of his trade. I know as much about fireworks as the average person, but Borodale's novel deeply explores the intersection of art and science involved in the endeavor, and it's a fascinating background for Agnes's story.

All the while, day by day, Agnes's secret is growing, threatening her position and her very future in this restrictive and unforgiving society. Agnes is definitely a reflection of her times. The novel's opening is a bit slow as she ponders her guilt and shame over and over. However, once the bulk of the story got going, I found myself entranced with the tale being told. The end of the novel was, perhaps, excessively well-telegraphed, but was no less satisfying for being predictable.

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