“Shipwrecks are part of life in the remote village of Porthmorven, Cornwall. And as the sea washes the bodies of the drowned onto the beach, it also brings treasures: barrels of liquor, exotic fruit, the chance to lift a fine pair of boots from a corpse, maybe even a jewel or two.
When, after a fierce storm, Mary Blight rescues a man half-dead from the sea, she ignores the whispers of her neighbours and carries him home to nurse better. Gideon Stone is a Methodist minister from Newlyn, a married man. Touched by Mary’s sacrifice and horrified by the superstitions and pagan beliefs the villagers cling to, Gideon sets out to bring light and salvation to Porthmorven by building a chapel on the hill.
But the village has many secrets and not everyone wants to be saved. As Mary and Gideon find themselves increasingly drawn together, jealousy, rumour and suspicion is rife. Gideon has demons of his own to face, and soon Mary’s enemies are plotting against her…”
I first came across stories of wreckers in one Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books when I was quite young. Five Go Down To The Sea was a book that had me reading saucer-eyed, late in to the night, as I heard the story of wicked people who used lights to lure boats onto the treacherous rocks of the Cornish coast so they could plunder the cargo of the sinking ship, careless of the lives of any passengers or crew on board. I was truly horrified that people could do something so evil, but fascinated at the same time and it must be true that childhood impressions stick because I have remained fascinated ever since.
Subsequently I discovered the books of Daphne du Maurier and, of course, Jamaica Inn deals with the same subject matter and has always been one of my favourites. So when I saw Wrecker on Netgalley, firstly its beautiful cover caught my eye but then, when I read the description, I knew I had to read it. However, I have ended up with mixed feelings about the book.
In some ways it did remind me of Jamaica Inn – the setting, the squalor of living conditions, the roughness of the people, plus they both have a mystery at the heart of them. However, there were a few ways in which Wrecker was the paler shadow of Jamaica Inn.
The writing was good. The author did a fantastic job of portraying the time period and the way of life of the people in this remote area of Cornwall at this time and the reasons why they would turn to such a heinous crime to enhance a way of life that was otherwise poverty-stricken. The book paints a very clear picture of the people, their dress and how they lived and there were some fascinating characters throughout the book. He captured the way of speaking in a way that felt authentic to the time period and differing social classes within the story. There is also a strong thread of superstition running through it which was really interesting to explore.
One of the main strengths of the book for me was the depiction of the very clearly delineated social structures within the population at this time, along both class and gender lines and how much this affected individual’s lives and what they were able to do. The main character, Mary, is a maverick who is fighting against both her class and her gender which are holding her back. Even within their mean and lowly village, she is at the bottom of the pecking order and is being kept down by the ‘bettermost’ when she tries to alleviate herself, and also shamed as a woman for wanting any kind of autonomy or self-determination. Lack of a male figure in their household exacerbates the problem. It is a fascinating inside into a time period and way of life that is totally alien to us and I loved this aspect of the book.
The downside was the fact that none of the characters were very sympathetic. Mary is rough and prickly and bitter, which is understandable and forgivable, but she is also very selfish and entirely motivated by avarice. Her goals are shallow and self-serving. Even when she thinks about bettering herself, she wants to do so purely with her own increased comfort and importance in mind, with no thought given to also raising up her mother and sister and I found it very hard to be too sympathetic to her for this reason. Most of the problems she is having are self-inflicted, she is no victim of circumstance. Even when she sets her cap at other people’s partners, it is not from genuine love but either lust or materialism, which are hard motivations to make a reader get behind a protagonist. Similarly, the main male character is weak and not particularly compelling as a romantic hero. The only really likeable character in the book is Mary’s sister Tegen.
That being said, having a deeply flawed protagonist is not totally fatal to the book, the plot was still involved enough to make it no hardship to read to the end. I was involved enough in watching the struggles within the social hierarchy play out that it carried me to the end. The mystery at the centre was a minor side interest and I was mildly interested but not desperate to know who did it. Everything got resolved very quickly at the end and it was quite dramatic but for some reason felt like a bit of a cop out.
My main complaint was that there was barely any reference to wrecking in this book, despite the title and I was a bit disappointed. There is a wreck at the beginning but we begin in the aftermath, but no clear details about how it is done, or whether it is the work or wreckers or an accident. It was not what I was hoping for and this has definitely coloured my opinion as well.
Overall, this is not a bad book and as an examination of social mores in a time and place long past it is fascinating but the actual characters and story left me unmoved and a little disappointed. The writing itself is good but not enough in itself to make this a book I will return to. This book has had a lot of hype and was snapped up quickly and for a substantial sum which added to my expectations but my overall feeling at the end was it did not live up to them and left me feeling ‘meh’.
Wrecker is out today and you buy a copy here.
My thanks to NetGalley and HQ for my copy of the book which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.
About the Author
Noel O’Reilly was a student on the New Writing South Advanced writing course. He has worked as a journalist and editor at the international business media company RBI, and is now a freelance writer. Wrecker is his first novel. He lived in Brighton with his wife and children.
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