The Unbinding of Mary Reade: Miriam McNamara

★★★

Well, hoist the mainsail, stock up on rum and run up the Jolly Roger: it’s time for a swashbuckling tale of piratical adventure! And, this time, the boys don’t have all the fun. Miriam McNamara introduces us to Mary Reade, who runs away to sea in 1717 disguised as a man, and who finds a new lease of life when the Dutch ship on which she serves is taken by pirates. Mary is impressed by the elegant pirate captain, ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham, but even more taken with the red-headed woman who fights in a red velvet gown at his side. This is Anne Bonny who, along with Mary, is one of the very few known female pirates. McNamara’s story plays a little fast and loose with the ‘facts’, though there are few enough of those, but she conjures up an engaging read with a very modern take on gender identity, which does justice to the spirit of Mary’s extraordinary story.

The strangest things are true. Mary Reade was born illegitimate, to a mother who was mourning the recent death of her legitimate son Mark. Feeling that a son was a better bet than a daughter, Mary’s mother brought her up in breeches, calling her Mark and keeping her true sex a secret from everyone around them. McNamara interweaves this story of young ‘Mark’ with the later tale of Mary’s joining the crew of Calico Jack in the Caribbean, and her awakening to a future full of new possibilities. McNamara even adds a childhood sweetheart, ‘Mark’s’ best friend Nat, who is oblivious both to his mate’s true sex and the depth of ‘Mark’s’ feelings for him, and whose departure to serve as a privateer in the West Indies has drawn Mary out to look for him. But, as Mary spends more and more time with Calico Jack and Anne, she begins to wonder whether Nat will really bring her the happiness she seeks in life.

Of course, the main reason to read this book is because one can never have too many pirate stories. But it’s also a very sensitive exploration of how our gender is shaped by our upbringing, and how this may or may not dovetail with our biological sex, and how our sexuality, likewise, may not fit comfortably with either. Mary is a rich and complex protagonist, embodying the diversity of experience that we increasingly see in other young adult novels as well. Her childhood love for Nat; her fascination with Anne: these emotions encourage her to try to carve out a new niche for herself in her world. And, best of all, Mary achieves what she does through her own determination and her own hard-won skills. Unlike Anne, she doesn’t shuttle from the protection of one man to another and the fact that she doesn’t need men, coupled with her fondness for breeches, only adds to the collapse of whatever reputation she might have had.

Anyone who’s done a bit of reading on Mary’s and Anne’s histories might spot moments where McNamara simplifies the real story. Anne, for example, was illegitimate like Mary and, like Mary, was brought up disguised as a boy, which gained her an education that she wouldn’t have received as a girl. This isn’t emphasised in the novel and, in fact, I found book-Anne a little too bland and a little too reliant on others – not necessarily what I’d have expected from a woman with as much spirit as the historical Bonny. Mary, too, has been changed a bit. In the book, she’s in her late teens when she joins Rackham’s crew – young enough to suffer the coming-of-age pains that give the story its emotional charge (and, let’s face it, a good deal of angst: this is young-adult after all). But the historical Mary was in her mid-thirties when she joined up, and had already fought as a soldier on land in Flanders, been married, had briefly run an inn and been widowed. She must have been a more mature (and hardened?) figure than McNamara’s protagonist.

I wonder whether McNamara plans to write a sequel? The ending is certainly left tantalisingly open. (Although, spoiler: I thought it required too much suspension of disbelief to imagine that two women – two people of any sex, indeed – could steal a ship without a bit more help.) If you’re keen on feisty women of history, pirates, or good young-adult historical fiction, I’d suggest giving this a shot when it’s published in July. Opinions on Goodreads are mixed, with many people being slightly more critical than I have been here; but I think it’s a perfectly solid example of its genre. I found it a light, engaging read, though in the light of research I’ve since done on Reade and Bonny, I think I’d have enjoyed it even more if the book had stuck to the facts.

The real Reade seems to have been about twelve years older than Bonny, which would have changed the dynamic in the book considerably, even if it might have been less appealing to its target readership. A feisty cross-dressing teenage female pirate? Brilliant, obviously. But a feisty, cross-dressing, middle-aged female pirate, who’d already fought in the Dutch army and (it transpired later) was a good deal braver than Calico Jack? Completely epic.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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