Set in 1752-53, The Book of Fires recounts the coming of age of Agnes Trussel, a seventeen-year-old peasant girl from a village at the foot of the Sussex Downs. Following an attack by a would-be suitor that leaves her pregnant, she makes up her mind to flee. Marriage to him would be stifling and unpleasant, and she can't risk bringing shame upon her family when food is already short and they risk eviction if they land they live on is enclosed. After stumbling upon the dead body of an elderly neighbor, Agnes snatches the jar of gold coins at her feet and slips away on the morning carrier to London.
More innocent than not, despite her condition, Agnes doesn't realize how fortunate she is to lose the address given to her by an elegantly dressed woman on her journey. Instead, she is unexpectedly hired by John Blacklock, a brooding widower who's a master of pyrotechny. As his assistant, Agnes learns the process of building many types of artificial fireworks. She also comes to understand the scientific principles behind them and, more importantly, the value her new profession holds for its customers and creators.
With her innate curiosity and enthusiasm, Blacklock finds in Agnes a kindred spirit. When they discuss the possibility of developing fireworks in brilliant color, their joint excitement is palpable. However, her pregnancy can't be hidden forever. As the months pass, the tension heightens, and the household's maidservants eye her with increasing suspicion. Agnes lives in fear of the day she's found out; she also worries about her fate if her initial thievery is discovered.
Borodale evokes a distant world where petty crimes received harsh punishments and the fortunes of women depended on what they were granted by chance or by men. The descriptive language, full of rich 18th-century vocabulary, involves all of the senses. It's possible to smell the pungent scent of gunpowder, feel the slimy sensation of rubbing salt into cold ham, and hear the tolling of the bell as it announces each hanging at Tyburn. Agnes is a strong character, yet her country-bred naivete makes her appealingly vulnerable. Her growing relationship with Blacklock, rewarding yet perplexing to them both, is portrayed with realism and sensitivity. And as with any dazzling fireworks display, the book ends in a truly spectacular finale. It's a novel about the love of learning, the transformative power of fire, and the discovery of unexpected wonders.
Jane Borodale's The Book of Fires was published in May 2009 by HarperPress UK at £12.99; it will appear from Pamela Dorman/Viking US on January 21st at $26.95 ($33.50 Canadian).