London, 1913. Thirteen-year-old Hazel Mull-Dare is being brought up as a young lady – in careful isolation from anything which might offend her ‘delicate senses’. But everything changes when, on Derby Day, she sees suffragette Emily Davison fling herself in front of the king’s horse. Why has she done it? And why does her father disappear the following day? Could it have anything to do with his gambling?
Then Gloria, a worldly-wise new girl at school, decides to educate Hazel and her friends in the ways of the world. Her plan involves a naive Hazel in an act of vandalism. Hazel is hastily packed her off to her grandparents, whose sugar plantation in the Caribbean is the source of the family fortune. Here, too, Hazel has things to learn: about the long shadow cast by slavery and her family’s part in it, and, above all, to question her own values.
I found this a curiously disjointed book. I wasn’t convinced by the first half. Hazel veers between being a ninny and implausibly ‘knowing’, and the well-endowed Gloria with her louche boy-friend comes straight out of St Trinian’s. Furthermore, a reputable school in 1913 would have used Dr Bowdler’s expurgated Shakespeare – an error which affects the credibility of a major plot strand.
Once we are in the lush, tornado-swept Caribbean we are in Jean Rhys territory, where the Blacks and their ex-masters live in an uneasy symbiosis. Here, Hazel’s ignorance is entirely credible and her gradual understanding far more convincing. I like the way that Hazel’s state of the art typewriter is used by a mysterious well-wisher to leave messages, exactly as the cockroach Archy contacts Mehitabel the office cat in Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel (1916). A nice period touch. I enjoyed this second half of the book. For 14 plus.
I loved this book, although I have to admit the beginning did not immediately captivate me. However, taking time to read past this was definitely well worth the effort. Julie Hearn has managed to piece together a book that keeps you on your toes throughout! It raises important issues of the time it is set in, such as class division, slavery and women’s rights, as well as more personal problems for Hazel, such as the trials, maliciousness and hierarchy of the playground that every thirteen-year-old must face. Once in, I found it near impossible to put this book down, hanging on to each word whilst desperately willing Hazel not to make mistakes that she seemed blind to. An amazing read covering themes as varied as a Britain torn asunder by the suffragette struggle to a Caribbean, racked with racism and the misery surrounding the slave trade.