I loved the sound of Wrecker when I first heard about it last year. I love Cornwall, and I really liked the idea of an historical novel set in the area, particularly one that draws upon the history and superstitions of the time as this one does.
A powerful debut exploring the dark side of Cornwall – the wrecking and the drowned sailors – where poverty drove villagers to dark deeds…
Shipwrecks are part of life in the remote village of Porthmorvoren, Cornwall. And as the sea washes the bodies of the drowned onto the beach, it also brings treasures: barrels of liquor, exotic fruit, the chance to lift a fine pair of boots from a corpse, maybe even a jewel or two.
When, after a fierce storm, Mary Blight rescues a man half-dead from the sea, she ignores the whispers of her neighbours and carries him home to nurse better. Gideon Stone is a Methodist minister from Newlyn, a married man. Touched by Mary’s sacrifice and horrified by the superstitions and pagan beliefs the villagers cling to, Gideon sets out to bring light and salvation to Porthmorvoren by building a chapel on the hill.
But the village has many secrets and not everyone wants to be saved. As Mary and Gideon find themselves increasingly drawn together, jealousy, rumour, and suspicion are rife. Gideon has demons of his own to face, and soon Mary’s enemies are plotting against her…
Gripping, beautifully written and utterly beguiling, Noel O’Reilly’s debut Wrecker is a story of love, injustice, superstition and salvation, set against Cornwall’s dark past.
Wrecker is told from the perspective of Mary Blight, a character that I adored, and perhaps a little more than I should have done. She is far from perfect, and yet I found her to be a compelling character. She is a character as fiery as her hair, and stands out in the village for many reasons, not least because she won’t accept her lot. She dreams of escaping Porthmorvoren and obtaining a better life, rather than marrying one of the locals and settling down as everyone else does. Her neighbours look down on her for this, and see her desire to improve herself as pride, and they are quick to put her in her place at any given opportunity. With the arrival of Gideon Stone, who Mary rescues from the sea, Mary sees her chance to obtain the better life she has always dreamed of.
The novel is set predominantly in Porthmorvoren, with a little trip out on to the surrounding moors and to Newlyn, where Mary gets to see another way of life – one that is vastly different to what she is used to – and she gets an insight into how her life might look if things were different. I thought that the setting was brought to life brilliantly, so much so that you can almost taste the sea on the air as you read. Given that the inhabitants of Porthmorvoren have so little of their own, they take every opportunity to salvage what they can from any wrecked ships that come to their shore, taking food, drink, sugar, clothing from the dead – whatever washes up is considered fair game. Whilst perhaps not admirable, their attitude is understandable, given how they live and their meagre possessions.
Wrecker is a slow burner of a novel but one that is rich in atmosphere, and it will keep you turning the pages to find out if Mary manages to escape her seemingly inevitable fate of seeing out her life in Porthmorvoren, or whether she’ll achieve her aim of a better life. There is also a mystery in the novel, as the identity of the “Porthmorvoren Cannibal” remains to be discovered, following a particularly vicious salvaging mission by someone in Porthmorvoren. Highly recommended to fans of historical fiction.