Book review: The Penny Heart by Martine Bailey

When young Manchester trickster Mary Jebb narrowly escapes the gallows in 1787, the reprieve comes at a terrible price'¦ seven years in a penal colony '˜at the ends of the earth.'
The Penny Heart byMartine BaileyThe Penny Heart byMartine Bailey
The Penny Heart byMartine Bailey

She will never forgive the two men who sealed her fate and for this scheming, manipulative woman, revenge will be a dish served very, very cold.

Welcome back to the atmospheric world of Martine Bailey’s gripping ‘culinary gothic’ novels which launched last year with the tasty treat, An Appetite for Violets, and now move into even darker territory in this deliciously devilish new tale.

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Bailey, who was inspired to write historical fiction by studying 18th century household recipes, is such an exciting and intelligent writer, seamlessly blending social history and Georgian cuisine with vivid, gripping, high-tension drama.

In The Penny Heart, which moves from the back streets of Manchester and a decaying Lancashire mansion to the grind and squalor of life in the penal colonies of Australia and New Zealand, we meet deceit, treachery, revenge… and murder.

When teenager Mary Jebb is sentenced to seven years in the unforgiving penal colony of Botany Bay in Australia, a ‘freakish wilderness across the world,’ she is not willing to be ‘swilled away like hogwash.’

Determined to be remembered, she sends two penny tokens, engraved with a promise to track them down, to the two men she blames for her enforced exile. Mary refuses to be permanently down and out, and tells herself that whatever it takes, she will ‘clamber to the top of this stinking heap.’

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Some years later, Grace Moore, a shy, solitary woman from a small Lancashire town, is left bereft by her mother’s death and jumps at the chance to marry handsome local gentleman Michael Croxon, if only to get away from her drunken father.

Thus far, Grace’s existence has been spent as ‘a daydreamer’ but her life at crumbling Delafosse Hall and her marriage to a man with ‘horribly capricious’ moods soon leaves her with a sickening sensation of ‘bitter disenchantment and curdled love.’

It is only when she takes on new cook Peg Blissett that she starts to look about herself with greater vigilance… and two penny heart love tokens reveal that Grace has become tied to a world she didn’t know existed.

One cannot help but be impressed and enthralled not just by Bailey’s secure grip on 18th century history, culture and cookery but by her ability to create palpably real and intriguing characters, authentic language and a world distant from today’s society and yet still so familiar with its universal human themes of greed, corruption, ambition and cruelty.

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In Mary and Grace, we find two very different women whose lives become dangerously entwined through fate, love and revenge. Their alternating narratives provide impetus and suspense to a complex, fast-moving plotline which incorporates fascinating original recipes and reaches boiling point in a breathtaking dénouement.

The Penny Heart is a compelling and haunting story, brimming with malice and darkness, and powerfully alive to the harsh realities of 18th century life, but it also an invigorating account of the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of terrible hardship.

(Hodder, paperback, £8.99)

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