The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby #BookReview

Longlisted for the Historical Writers Association (HWA) Debut Crown award 2019

To believe in her future, she must uncover her past...

Birmingham, 1885.

Born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse, Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside her.

Haunted by memories of a terrible crime, she seeks a new life working as a servant in the house of scientist Thomas Jerwood.

Here, Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to be the subject of a living experiment. But is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora…?

With the power and intrigue of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions and Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, Carolyn Kirby’s stunning debut takes the reader on a heart-breaking journey through Victorian Birmingham and questions where we first learn violence: from our scars or from our hearts.

The paperback edition of The Conviction of Cora Burns is published by No Exit Press today. I first read this excellent debut novel back in April and was thrilled to see it was longlisted for the Historical Writers Association (HWA) Debut Crown award 2019. It's such a pleasure to be able to re-share my review on Hair Past A Freckle again today and to wish Carolyn a very happy publication day.

The Conviction of Cora Burns opens with the birth of the titular character. Born in a gaol, it's not an auspicious start to life and it's no wonder that she is a troubled young woman. The main part of the narrative follows Cora in 1885, when newly released from prison herself, she is offered a position as a between-maid in the house of a scientist, Thomas Jerwood. It's clear almost from the outset that there lurks within Cora, the imagination - and almost certainly the ability - to commit shockingly violent acts. It's only as the novel progresses and the story switches between her current situation and her past, that we realise just how dark her history really is.
Cora is an intriguing character and in a book which features numerous mentions of photographic likenesses and explores human nature, the light and shade of her personality in particular makes for fascinating - and unsettling at times - reading. She can be unkind, even cruel but Carolyn Kirby ensures she remains a mostly sympathetic character. Despite her wrongdoings, there is something about her which kept me invested in her actions and hoping that she would eventually find some sense of peace within herself. She believes the half-medal bearing the words IMAGINEM SALT is the key to her being reunited with Alice, a girl she encountered at school who may or may not be her sister. Over the course of the book, she is haunted by the memories of Alice - but who is to blame for the increasingly disturbing acts she recalls?
Interspersed throughout the novel are excerpts from the medical journals and essays of two scientists with opposing viewpoints on nature versus nurture. Jerwood  is convinced that nature is the primary cause for a person's behaviour and believes that composite photography can be used to demonstrate criminal physiognomy down the generations. His experiments prove to be really quite chilling as he prioritises his dogmatic belief in his theories over what most people would consider to be moral. In contrast, David Farley, the Assistant Medical Officer Birmingham Asylum, believes a person's situation, especially those in poverty to be a major factor in mental health issues and the reason why some people may end up turning to crime. He hopes his efforts to hypnotise a patient will lead to them recovering enough to support his strong belief in the socialist cause. I don't want to give anything away here but I enjoyed seeing how his experiments lead to him becoming connected to Cora. There is always a risk that interrupting the main thrust of the story will spoil the flow of the narrative but I didn't find that was the case here. I really enjoyed seeing how two different minds considered questions about humanity which are still discussed to this day.
The sights, smells and sounds of Victorian Birmingham are vividly described giving a real sense of time and place. It doesn't always make for easy reading as there are some upsetting scenes here but I was engrossed by this honest and gritty portrayal of how difficult life was for those at the bottom of society's ladder -  and how easy it was to slip down there. The Conviction of Cora Burns is a remarkable debut; it's a bold, intelligent and beautifully crafted novel. It kept me captivated throughout and I highly recommend it.

The Conviction of Cora Burns is published by No Exit Press, purchasing links can be found here.

About the Author

Originally from Sunderland, Carolyn Kirby studied history at St Hilda’s College, Oxford before working in social housing and then as a teacher of English as a foreign language. Her debut novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns, (previously titled Half of You) was begun in 2013 on a writing course at Faber Academy in London. The novel has achieved success in several competitions including as finalist in the 2017 Mslexia Novel Competition and as winner of the inaugural Bluepencilagency Award. Carolyn has two grown-up daughters and lives with her husband in rural Oxfordshire.
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