An Almond for a Parrot: Wray Delaney

★★★

Some weeks ago, I wrote that I was weary of Victorian jail-fiction, so you may think it strange that here I am, posting on another novel about a woman in prison. But this is different to the likes of The Corset: there are no naive lady visitors, no stern matrons, nor are we in the prim 19th century. No: it’s 1756, in the very bosom of the Georgian age, and this is a racy fable full of rogues and ladies of the night, and touched with odd, piquant flashes of magic. Tully Truegood is in Newgate, awaiting trial for murder, her life briefly secured by the child growing under her heart. She has been many things – a daughter, a whore, a sprite, and a magician – and, as she waits, she feels a compulsion rising in her to tell her story to the one man, now long absent, that she’s ever loved.

Tully remembers a time when her childhood was warm and comfortable, but by her teens her widowed father has gambled away what little money remained. Now he roisters with his friends while Tully blossoms, trapped and innocent, within the walls of the house. Her diversions are small, innocent ones: glimpsing the ghosts that drift or hide in their rambling home, or learning to fly down the stairs. Then, to her amazement, her father remarries. Suddenly everything changes, and for the better. Her new stepmother is gracious, beautiful and kind, and she brings Tully two new sisters: Hope and Mercy. But the happiness doesn’t last long and, when the marriage collapses and Tully’s saviour moves out, her father sinks into despair. One dark night, he takes an act that will overshadow Tully’s future: he marries her off for a fee to a faceless young man in a darkened room, who is promptly sent off to sea and whom Tully supposes she will never see again. But, as she grows older, she begins to suspect that someone is following her. Is it possible that her husband has finally decided to snatch her back?

Escaping from her father, Tully finds herself faced with an unexpected world of opportunity. Her stepmother Queenie is revealed to be the wealthy owner of a superior bordello and takes her in. For a while, Tully finds herself back in the bosom of her adopted family. But soon she must decide how best she can make her way in this new world. Sell her body, of course. No question of that, given where she is. But what will make her special? And then, with the aid of Queenie’s man of business Mr Crease, Tully realises that her special skills – levitation, manifesting the spirits of the dead, magicking men’s eyes to see what she wishes them to see – might help to make Queenie’s house the talk of the town. As she performs her tricks, and gains a familiarity with the brothel’s other arts, she becomes famous; one might almost say, notorious. And, though she gains the admiration of certain very useful gentlemen, she also draws the eyes of the men who once stalked her through London. And, having missed her once, they don’t mean to do so again…

That doesn’t really scratch the surface of the plot, which is full of twists and turns, kidnappings both attempted and successful, and ghostly apparitions; not to mention the central mystery of Tully’s child-marriage, which looms so darkly over her head. Now, I like a good romp as much as the next person, and there was plenty to enjoy here, but I felt some reservation about the magical elements. They were never really explained; they weren’t given any particular point, beyond the fact that they enabled a couple of dazzling set-pieces for Queenie’s house, plus a neat but rather unsatisfying deus ex machina in the final chapters. The story could have worked perfectly well without them and might even have been stronger, for once an element of magic is introduced, you automatically stop feeling quite so concerned for the character involved, supposing that they’ll find a way to get out of whatever predicament they might meet with a flash of their ‘special powers’.

There were also far too many coincidences or unexplained events for my taste. Why, for example, does Queenie decide to marry Tully’s father in the first place? Just out of the goodness of her heart? Why does Poppet dog the steps of Cook’s friend rather than Queenie herself? Would the establishment really have allowed Lord B to gift everything to a woman like Tully? Everything seemed very neat and designed to be tied up with a nice tight bow at the final curtain, which left me feeling obscurely unsatisfied. A novel which began with the promise of grit and grime and a bit of dirt under the fingernails ended up with a denouement more suited to a sugary historical romance or a fairytale. It made the novel feel manufactured. Yes, yes, I know that all fiction is manufactured, but some worlds are so real and vivid that you feel they carry on past the final page. This one was so tidily drawn together that it felt more like the end of a play, where the characters come on to take their bows, and you know that it’s all done and dusted.

Beautifully written, with some strikingly erotic scenes – as you might expect, from a story set largely in a brothel – Delaney’s novel is nevertheless a strange beast. The lovely prose is to be expected, as Delaney is a pen name for Sally Gardner, a well-established author for children and winner of several awards including the Carnegie Medal. (Given the sexual content here, it’s understandable that she decides to firmly separate it from her work for younger readers by adopting a pseudonym.) But An Almond for a Parrot doesn’t always feel entirely at ease as it nips back and forth between the natural and the supernatural. When I began reading, I thought I was going to love it. In the end I only liked it, but it’s still a worthy addition to the world of Georgian fiction, evoking the strain and struggle of women to make their mark in a world ruled by men.

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