In 1610 the Englishman John Guy established a colony at Cupers Cove, Newfoundland (now known as Cupids), at the behest of King James I, and with funding from several Bristol merchants. An ambitious, able leader, Guy was responsible for the success of the colony, in spite of deprivation, infighting, and a lack of ongoing fiscal support. Butler doesn’t depart from the known facts in this intriguing short novel; he gives us instead a fascinating tale of what men will do in order to reach their lofty goals.
Guy returns to Bristol in 1611 to seek more funding, and to woo Eliza Egret, the principal stockholder’s haughty daughter. He is accompanied by a colony prisoner, Bartholomew, who is to be tried for burning the stores of grain. Bartholomew is a master of words and manipulation, and he worms his way into Guy’s trust, making himself indispensable in Guy’s quest to win money and a wife. Guy and other characters—namely Helen, the Egret’s servant—seem helpless under Bartholomew’s spell, performing acts of treachery and connivance they would never have the ability to achieve individually. With each chapter narrated from a different character’s perspective, we get a multifaceted look at the machinations behind decisions and actions. Guy, Bartholomew, and Helen provide most of the story, but the occasional chapter from the point of view of Matilda Egret, the ancient sister of the stockholder, lends a macabre touch to the tale.
Butler provides solid descriptions of both the coast of Newfoundland and Bristol, England; where he excels is in his depictions of the human psyche: the servant who rebels against her station, the aunt who never forgets past wrongs, the willful daughter of a rich man. He has created memorable characters who could all easily be historical figures rather than imaginative figments.