Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Hangman in the Mirror by Kate Cayley

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley 
Read: Oct. 25, 2011 

A strong-willed 16-year-old girl fights for survival in 18th-century North America. Françoise Laurent has never had an easy life. The only surviving child of a destitute washerwoman and wayward soldier, she must rely only on herself to get by. When her parents die suddenly from the smallpox ravishing New France, Françoise sees it as a chance to escape the life she thought she was trapped in. Seizing her new found opportunity, Françoise takes a job as an aide to the wife of a wealthy fur trader. The poverty-ridden world she knew transforms into a strange new world full of privilege and fine things -- and of never having to beg for food. But Françoise's relationships with the other servants in Madame Pommereau's house are tenuous, and Madame Pommereau isn't an easy woman to work for. When Françoise is caught stealing a pair of her mistress's beautiful gloves, she faces a future even worse than she could have imagined: thrown in jail, she is sentenced to death by hanging. Once again, Françoise is left to her own devices to survive... Is she cunning enough to convince the prisoner in the cell beside her to become the hangman and marry her, which, by law, is the only thing that could save her life? Based on an actual story and filled with illuminating historical detail, The Hangman in the Mirror transports readers to the harsh landscape of a new land that is filled with even harsher class divisions and injustices.

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I lucked out with this one. True to form I saw a vaguely interesting cover and filed it away in the recesses of my mental archive as 'to-read' without reading the description. For once, my inattention worked in the author's favor for if I had read the blurb there would have been no reason to read the book. Ninety-five percent of the content is spelled out for the reader in that simple passage. Rather disappointing really.

In addition to giving away most of the plot, the blurb is one of the two places that state the book is based on true events. During the reading, I noted the unique story line but upon reading the blurb I realized how little of the plot actually came from the author's imagination. Again I found myself disappointed as the aspects I appreciated most came straight out of an obscure history book.

Françoise Laurent, the central character of The Hangman in the Mirror, lacks the charm and charisma of Moll Flanders and Becky Sharp but she is without doubt molded in their image. Morally ambiguous, she is a difficult personality to warm to and while I admired the direction Cayley took in crafting her identity, I was less than enthusiastic about the execution. Françoise is selfish and irritating but she is presented in such a way that I found myself flat out disinterested in her fate.

All things considered it would be all too easy to dismiss the book entirely but I prefer to give credit where it is due. I was displeased by Cayley's leading lady but I found Françoise's parents intriguing. Her father, a drinker and gambler of little skill, reveals himself as more complex than he appears. A hard man, it comes as a surprise that he, in his way actually cares for his sole surviving child. Françoise's mother, a laundress, is a classic example of what happens to those who lose all hope. Depressed by the harsh reality of her existence, she spends much of her time recounting the glories of France while attempting to drown herself in bottles of cheap booze. The depravity of their situation was well-illustrated and the multifaceted nature of these two characters gives me hope for Cayley's future publications.

Not my cup tea but then, not every book is. Recommended to fan's of Celia Rees' Sovay.

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They will hang me in the winter and I will hang dead in the snow. My face swollen, my spine broken, I will swing in the wind, in the wide open spaces of New France, and I will stand as a warning for all those who are born with nothing and wish for more.
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Kimberly @ Caffeinated Reviewer said...

Good honest review.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kimba. I really try to be honest with these.