Despite the many protestations on this blog that I’m not an historical novel fan, I usually read at least one a year that hits the spot for me, often in autumn or winter. Last year’s was Lucy Jago’s A Net for Small Fishes. This year’s looked set to be Susan Stokes-Chapman’s Pandora. Set in Georgian London in the final year of the 18th-century, Stokes-Chapman’s debut opens with the salvaging of a shipwreck which will be the making of some and the devastation of others.
But to know what is inside the crate, what else her uncle might be hiding… It is this that haunts her now
Orphaned at eight, Dora lives with her uncle and their housekeeper above the Emporium for Exotic Antiquities set up by her parents to sell their excavation finds, its stock now full of forged artefacts. Dora hopes to design jewellery, her beloved pet magpie bringing back treasures around which she sets her fine goldwork. When her samples are rejected yet again, Dora decides to investigate the contents of the basement Hezekiah keeps firmly locked, amazed to find a beautiful Greek vase – a pithos – the perfect material on which to base a new set of designs to please a fickle public. When Edward approaches her in the hope that she might help him with his fourth application to the Society of Antiquaries, an alliance is forged between these two young people, both thwarted in their ambitions, which will lead them into the gravest danger, resulting in shocking revelations.
There is a fine line between coincidence and fate
Stokes-Chapman’s novel opens dramatically with the salvaging of the Colossus as a diver seeks the crate marked with a cross, destined to be delivered to Hezekiah’s shop. It sets the pace for this atmospheric novel which is a mystery, a love story and an adventure whose pace becomes page-turning as it races towards the revelation of the pithos’ contents. A trail of mysteries runs through the narrative, not least the identity of the white-haired man who makes an occasional appearance and whether the pithos is cursed. I enjoyed Stokes-Chapman’s story of antiquities and adventure but not without reservations. I won’t ruin it by explaining what they are but I’ll just mention that I’m a deeply rational reader. That said, she knows how to spin an absorbing yarn. Imogen Hermes Gower’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is my benchmark for this kind of novel and this one fell a little short.
Harvill Secker: London 9781787302884 352 pages Hardback