Faye L. Booth’s MySpace carries a wonderful quote, and axiom, by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” Molly Pinner, heroine of Booth’s debut novel, Cover the Mirrors, is certainly not a well-behaved woman, and she is a genuine player (in more than one sense of the word) in Booth’s fictional world.
Cover the Mirrors is Molly’s tale of rags to riches, loss and love, ignorance to enlightenment, and, ultimately, to fulfilment. Set in mid 19th Century Preston, when spiritualism was at the height of its popularity, the book opens with a fifteen year old Molly learning her sick maiden aunt’s craft as a spirit medium. After Aunt Florrie’s death, Molly inherits the thriving business and to the wealthy and bereaved of the town she proves herself to be a gifted communicator with the dead.
And while Molly clearly enjoys her work and is a shrewd entrepreneur the truth is that, like most teenagers, she is much more interested in the living, those made of flesh and blood, and testosterone. A dalliance with a local businessman, William Hamilton, leads to an unwanted pregnancy and an arguably even less attractive proposition: marriage. Molly understands that once married she will no longer be her own woman, her home and business will belong to her husband, and she is desperate to remain in control, despite her strong feelings for William. The crux of the novel lies in how this canny young woman negotiates this emotional minefield. There are other surprises in store but to expand on these would reveal too much – suffice to say that Molly encounters spectres of an altogether earthlier form that those she conjures for the delight of her paying customers.
Booth knows how to weave a compelling yarn, and is adroit at establishing convincing period atmosphere without letting it stand in the way of plot and character development. The story trips along nicely. Preston, in its industrial heyday, with its beautiful squares and grimy slums, rich and poor, is a perfect backdrop and Booth’s love for her home town shines through the prose, as does her fascination with the period. Booth’s research is meticulous, she transports you entirely, engaging all the senses - one can feel, hear, smell and see her world. There’s everything one could expect from a bodice-ripper: sex, romance, and intrigue. Wretched mill workers and handsome serving boys rub shoulders with wealthy socialites and dashing gents, and if this sounds standard historical fare then don’t be mislead. The writing is beautiful.
Molly is an impressive and all too rare creation in historical fiction - a real woman, neither sinner nor saint, she is flawed and affable. Lusty, busty and strong-willed she is a woman I could almost imagine being mates with, albeit one who wears petticoats and carries a reticule rather than skinny jeans and a tote. And the 'almost' is important. While Molly faces dilemmas that young women face today, she is very much of her time, and this is credit to Booth’s skill as a writer. Molly is not a 21st century girl trussed up in a corset, she is of her time. And this is true of the supporting characters.
As you would expect Cover the Mirrors displays traits of the debut novel, and there are a few nits to pick, though I’m not going to do that here. This is an accomplished book from a young author – Booth is 27 – go read it yourself. I’m looking forward to her next creation.