Regular readers of this blog will know that I tend to bang on a bit about jackets. It’s the old bookseller in me – I hate to see good novels done a disservice by their packaging. In this particular case, the jacket is far from off-putting but it does feel a little misleading and left to my own devices I probably wouldn’t have picked the novel up. Its starry sky and young girl looking out to sea speak of romance and adventure to me, suggesting that the book might be a little fluffy which it most certainly isn’t. Set in late eighteenth-century North Carolina against the backdrop of the American War of Independence and its aftermath, Katy Simpson Smith’s debut deals with hard issues of morality, themes of loss, regret and the possibility of redemption, all wrapped up in the story of one family, beautifully told.
It opens ten years after the end of the war with John telling stories to his nine-year-old daughter Tabitha, an evening ritual for them both. She wants to hear of his piratical seafaring days, he always tells stories of her mother. Helen and John eloped, determined to marry in the face of her father’s disapproval. John smuggled her aboard ship where they spent the first year of their marriage. After Helen’s death in childbirth, John returned to the garrison town of Beaufort where Asa determinedly takes his reluctant grand-daughter to church every Sunday. The two men barely get along: one an atheist, the other a fervent believer; one a lowly shopkeeper with a dubious history; the other still clinging to his grandiose ambitions of legacy despite the loss of his only child. Woven through the story of these two disparate men is that of Moll, the slave who became Helen’s friend and confidante, who pays the price for her sassiness.
Smith’s story loops back and forth, first telling Tabitha’s story, then her mother’s, before returning to John and Asa’s. Her writing is wonderfully assured – the occasional lyrical passage sings out from her otherwise elegantly restrained prose. It’s a novel peopled with complex, rounded and believable characters: given to Helen on her tenth birthday, Moll is determined to defend what little territory she has, maturing into a strong and resolute woman; the pious young Helen teaches the slaves to read and write, assembling them on Sundays only later realising that for them ‘God is merely the lack of a whip’. Smith examines the profound moral complexities of slavery within the context of the time in which her story is set with dramatic effect – somehow the simple word ‘buy’ when applied to another human being triggers a shock and horror more visceral than any graphic physical description. In its portrayal of a tumultuous time seen through the eyes of two people, it reminded me at times of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. Altogether, a thoroughly impressive debut: I’ll be interested to see what Smith does next.