The ideal reader for Carolyn Kirby’s debut novel loves falling headfirst into meaty, realist fiction. This reader is well-versed in epistolary work and loves a good patchwork of forms. She’s interested in big ideas but has more love for the sheer act of reading. She enjoyed every hour she spent reading Middlemarch and doesn’t especially care about the bleeding edge of literature. Thankfully, this ideal reader is plenty of readers, and The Conviction of Cora Burns is an excellent novel, rich and satisfying enough to appeal to most or all of them.
When the novel opens in 1885, twenty-year-old Cora Burns has lived her life entirely in the orphanages, workhouses, jails, and mental institutions of Birmingham, England. In the early Victorian era, Birmingham was a sooty, slummy industrial city, and Cora’s life is suitably Dickensian. After serving a term in jail for a crime that remains hidden for most of the book, she is recruited by Thomas Jerwood, a man of some wealth and education, to be a servant in his household. Jerwood dabbles in photography, psychology, and criminality, and Cora unwittingly becomes part of the experiments in which these interests converge. She befriends Violet, a ward of Jerwood’s who behaves strangely, contradictorily, and she becomes entangled in the household’s mysteries. At the same time, she seeks answers to her own mysteries. Who is her mother? How did she come by the half-medallion she wears, which oddly resembles the valuable coins in Jerwood’s study? Where in the world is Alice, Cora’s dearest friend from her childhood? And is Cora merely the sum of her crimes and misfortunes, or can she redeem herself?
This last question preoccupies Jerwood, too, and he attempts to answer it through unethical experimentation. He probes at nature vs. nurture, but he fails to take into consideration the hardship that late Victorian England can wreak upon those without means. Among its virtues, The Conviction of Cora Burns makes a potent (if somewhat didactic) argument against industrialized life, particularly in the voice of the kind Dr. Farley: “These monsters of industry devour the working classes and spit them out; exhausted, broken, and insane. Capitalism is designed to create discontent, and despair is a tool used by the rich to keep the poor in chains.” Cora comes to understand this in her own way: “The pattern of her existence had been determined by her birth and by all of the circumstances that had surrounded her since. So she understood now that if she was ever to have a life better than the one she had so far endured, she must make herself into someone else.”
This book is filled with dualities and mirror images, with pairs of objects and people, and with likenesses and illusions mistaken for the real thing. The most pervasive idea in the book is the word “composite,” the creation of a single thing from more than one source through combination or imposition. This idea wends its way through many of the events and objects in the book, from photographs to births. Ideas, people, and images are held against each other to make new wholes, whether this is a morally sound idea or not. The book itself is a composite, made from Dr. Farley’s journal entries, Jerwood’s pseudo-academic papers, and regular third-person narration in multiple time periods.
However, it’s not all big ideas. Kirby writes clean, adept, involving prose, the kind that speeds through the mind without vanishing into mere utility. Her descriptions of Cora’s violent fantasies are especially provocative: “Cora thought, fleetingly, of how Susan Gill’s face might look if her head were rammed against the wire thing by the window, one of those colored glass balls gouging into her cheek. Blood would pool on the patterned carpet and spatter the armchair’s cracked leather.”
All of this hangs together like an afghan woven into a single pattern from many colors of yarn. Kirby’s work is remarkably expert for a debut novel; her seams rarely show, and she exhibits great deftness with the historical form. The book is perhaps too focused on births, and too coincidental in that regard. One character amounts to little more than a cliché of the madwoman in the attic, which is unfortunate for a book with feminism in its marrow. Cora herself is a prickly narrator, full of (reasonable) fury and prone to poor judgment, which will turn off some readers. But the secrets of her life unwind at exactly the right pace.
In its plotting, The Conviction of Cora Burns resembles the 2001 film The Others. The audience has a delicious, pervasive sense that something is wrong, structurally so, and there are secrets that, if revealed, would make the whole situation clear. But it’s impossible to determine what single explanation would suffice until it’s handed over.
That goes for the book’s title, too. It serves a little bit like The Passion of Joan of Arc, in that “conviction” is both an abstract noun meaning an inner quality, and a specific noun meaning a legal proceeding. What kind of conviction Cora has, of either variety, and how it will shape her fate, is unclear until late in the book. But much of the pleasure of this book derives not from its conclusions or its analysis, but simply from reading it. For novel addicts, it’s a dark, spicy treat.