Let’s hope “A Wild and True Relation” by Kim Sherwood is available soon in the U.S.


A Wild & True Relation by Kim Sherwood review – smugglers and lovers

A brooding hero, a kidnapped heroine and lusty couplings in a swashbuckling yarn that plays knowingly with the romantic genre

by Suzi Feay, published Fri 17 Mar 2023 05.00 EDT

Anovel born of extensive historical research presents a temptation to its author: to shoehorn in every morsel hoovered from the archives, regardless of whether or not it slows down the action. Kim Sherwood’s third doesn’t fall into that trap, but it’s overstuffed in a different way. The extra material here – interpolations, commentary, pastiche – gives an intertextual gloss to what might otherwise come across as a straightforward swashbuckling yarn.

The novel begins when toddler Molly is abducted over the body of her dead mother by the king of the Devon smugglers, Tom West. The ramifications of that night, 26 November 1703, will rumble on for centuries as the story of the orphan and the freebooter passes into legend. Molly, who grows up to become daredevil Orlando, a member of Tom’s crew, believes Grace Tucker was shot by the “Revenue man” who came to arrest Tom that stormy night, and vows to avenge her mother’s death. However, everyone present has a different account, and a different motive for sticking to it. One story is that Grace, Tom’s lover, betrayed the smugglers’ code. Whether vows and codes are just thin justifications for selfish actions is a key theme.

Tom disguises Molly as a boy to keep her safe from predation on board, but the crew of the Escape is seemingly made up of surprisingly soft-hearted seamen, with the exception of Tom’s malevolent half-brother, Hellard. Moral reversal is another major theme; the law and religion are polite fictions when to be priest or judge is no guarantee of virtue. Richard “Limp Dick” English, the weedy Revenue man, is the Inspector Javert to vigorous Tom’s Jean Valjean, feverishly plotting his downfall in a manner that owes more to sexual jealousy than a desire for justice.

Sherwood’s impersonation of RL Stevenson’s garrulous style is particularly effective

Employing lusty couplings, a brooding hero and a tender young heroine, Sherwood plays knowingly with the romantic genre. The worldly Madame Rhys, sniffing out Orlando’s secret, affirms: “I can teach you to enslave mortal man … it will be my project to show you … when to soften your eyes, when to shine with desire.” You can almost hear the author snickering at such guff. Rhys’s hackneyed phrases are a comment on her shallow sensibilities and limited perspective. Here as elsewhere, style becomes censure.

Framing the enjoyable rum-running and skirt-lifting passages are regular excerpts from a modern lecture on the erasure of women’s stories by men (Tom’s theft and destruction of Grace’s journal is highly symbolic). In other interpolations, marked with changes of typeface, Sherwood impersonates a variety of writers down the centuries, all fascinated with Molly’s tale. Daniel Defoe, Dr Johnson’s friend Hester Thrale Piozzi, Dickens and George Eliot are all cleverly pastiched; Sherwood’s impersonation of RL Stevenson’s garrulous style is particularly effective.

One obvious influence, Daphne du Maurier, is perhaps concealed behind the fictitious Elizabeth Wildego, who in the 1920s has made a fortune writing historical blockbusters. An American producer is endeavouring to persuade an unwilling Elizabeth to sell the film rights to her bosom-throbbing romance based on Molly’s story. By both undermining and indulging the genre, it seems Sherwood is having her delicious contraband cake and eating it, too.

 A Wild & True Relation is published by Virago (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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