The Penny Heart
Buy or Borrow: Buy
Source: Copy courtesy of Bookbridgr!
Sentenced to death for a simple confidence trick, Mary Jebb escapes the gallows ... but her reprieve is harsh: seven years in the unforgiving penal colony of Botany Bay. Yet Mary is determined not to be forgotten, sending two pennies, engraved with a promise, to the two men who sealed her fate.
Timid artist Grace Moore jumps at the opportunity to marry handsome gentleman Michael Croxon - happy if only to get away from her drunken father.
But when Grace takes on a new cook, the two penny heart love tokens reveal she is tied to a world she didn't know existed ... A world of deceit, double-crossing, revenge and murder.
Man I love historical novels, and this was so rich with history and well drawn characters, so it was kind of the best type of historical novel as well! The book was incredibly atmospheric and vivid, everything could be pictured clearly with incredible detail. I was drawn in to the world, and given such a rich, realistic taste of 18th century life.
The atmosphere seeps off every single page, the foreboding wrapped around you from the first tone setting chapter. From that very first chapter you're drawn in to the world, and intrigued by the central character, who is incredibly complex. I may be alone in this, but I connected with Mary, and while at times I thought she was being a bit dodgy, and a bit...mean, shall we say, the majority of the time I felt incredibly sorry for her, and felt so much sympathy for her, I actually liked her more than I liked Grace. I could understand Mary, she had been brought up in the criminal underworld she didn't know any better, she was struggling to survive, and in the 18th century, it wasn't easy for the poorer classes to survive.
I don't know what it was about Grace that irritated me, but she did irritate me so I found myself kind of on the side of Mary, she went about things entirely wrong, but after everything she experienced, and believe me, there where flashbacks each more horrifying than the last, as you learned more and more about Mary, you where more and more horrified about her life and what had happened to her. Then in contrast you had Grace who, yes she had to look after a drunken father, but it didn't compare really to Mary's hardships. So I think when Grace complained about something, or acted a bit high and mighty at times, she kind of annoyed me. Her problems seemed kind of trivial compared to everything that had happened to Mary.
Literally, the author has created this character I was supposed to hate but I felt so deeply for her. Even though she was kind of evil. Like I said, I could understand her and her motives and what drove her and I felt so deeply sorry for her I kind of overlooked the evil bits. And then like I said, Grace seemed a bit airy fairy compared to her, complaining about ridiculous things.
As a reader, you're one step ahead of Grace the entire time, and you read with this air of, I know something you don't know, but you don't know everything that she doesn't know, you know enough to know that something is going to happen, something's going on and so on, and then at the same time, you don't know too much, not enough to puzzle everything out. There where pieces there but clearly I wasn't smart enough to put it all together so when the huge reveal came I was incredibly surprised, and at the same time, I had to admire the complexity of the plot.
It was very complex, right from the beginning. You're trying to work out what happened, what's true and what isn't. There's the whole plot Mary has created that is impossible to guess at, as you read, there's tension building and building and you're on the edge of your seat waiting to know what happens next, unable to put the book down as you speed towards the climax that totally blows you away.
The book was beautifully written, lending to the atmosphere and the sense of authenticity. I immensely enjoyed the recipes at the beginning of each chapter, they where kind of fascinating, as I'm assuming they're from the era, and I've marked a few down to try out, now if I really wanted an authentic read, I'd have added another level by reading the book and eating one of the recipes from the book, but I didn't think that far ahead!
Each chapter was told from both Peg (Mary) and Grace's point of view. Each point of view was perfectly toned, and very engaging. Each voice was distinctly different from the other, in language and in personality. Both characters where brought to life right on the page and you could hear the difference in the voices as you read. Like I said, I just didn't really like Grace all that much when compared to Mary struggling on with her hard life.
I always find myself learning something whenever reading a historical novel. In this particular one, I got a more realistic and less romanticised look at the life of a woman marrying in the 18th century, and the life of a woman living in the criminal underworld, trying to survive. In this book I also got a brutally realistic look at the penal colonies, and learned something of what it must have been like to live in one. I also learned of a Maori tribe and it's culture over in New Zealand, something of which I knew nothing about before. Before reading this book I only knew that the penal colonies existed and that prisoners had been sent there, but had known nothing beyond it. It was eye opening on more than one front and I enjoyed that the book was brutally realistic, rather than trying to make everything seem all romantic and perfect like a lot of historical books do, you got the honest truth.
The Penny Heart gives you atmospheric settings, each with a different vibe to the other, and each that will stick with you, as well as memorably characterised and realistic characters that you end up feeling so deeply for as you learn more and more about them. Each setting is brought to life along with the characters and you find yourself really getting a taste of 18th century life, much as it must have been, rather than the now romanticised notion that most people seem to have of the times.