The sub-title of Lily by Rose Tremain is ‘A Tale of Revenge’ and on the first page we learn that sixteen-year-old Lily Mortimer is a murderer and expects to die soon. It is a compelling beginning. This is the story of Lily’s life from when as a baby she was found abandoned in a sack being attacked by wolves. Found by a police officer she is taken to London’s Foundling Hospital from where she is placed with a foster family at Rookery Farm in Suffolk. A beautiful telling of a difficult childhood, softened by Tremain’s exquisite writing, Lily shows Victorian London where charitable works sometimes work for the orphaned child and sometimes against. It explores the nature of happiness in a rural life, often hard, but surrounded by love. At the age of six, Lily is returned to London and forbidden contact with her foster parents, Nellie and Perkin Buck, who were paid for their care of her and, after delivering her, collect a new foster baby. Lily is courageous, pragmatic, rebellious and, throughout the harsh years that follow, is sustained by the memory of Nellie’s love. And so starts the cycle of Lily’s life, of hope followed by despair.
Lily’s friendship with fellow orphan Bridget is very touching. It reminded by of Jane Eyre’s friendship with Helen Burns at Lowood, a story that has stayed with me ever since first reading the novel as a teenager.
The almost-adult Lily, dreaming of her death, wonders, ‘Whyever did I struggle so long and so hard to make my way in a place which was bent on my destruction ever since I came into it? Why did I not surrender to death when I was a child, for children’s pictures of death are fantastical and full of a strange beauty?’ The story changes pace when Lily realises she cannot put the past behind her, she must face what she did and why.
The timeline flits back and forth a bit between Lily as a child, in Suffolk and at the Hospital where she is trained for menial employment, and as an adult when she works at the gloriously named and imagined Belle Prettywood’s Wig Emporium which makes wigs for opera and stage productions. It is in the older voice that we learn more about the murder she committed. This is not a murder mystery or a whodunnit, it’s not even a who-was-it-done-to. It’s about a girl who survives an abusive, neglectful childhood by giving and receiving love, kindness and compassion, who learns how to survive alone in the world. Yes, Lily is vulnerable. She longs to love and be loved, but she’s also resilient, despite everything.
Compelling, difficult to put down. Beautifully written.
BUY THIS BOOK
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