Barefoot on the Cobbles: A Devon Tragedy

Written by Janet Few
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

I had misgivings reading the list of dramatis personae, several pages long, that the author provides at the start of her book. Whose story was this really going to be? My fears were unfounded, for essentially it is the story of Polly Wakely, a fisherman’s wife in Clovelly, and her ultimately tragic relationship with her daughter Daisy. Based on a true story and impeccably researched, the novel spans the period 1890 to 1919, beginning and ending with a trial. It thus encompasses within the chapel-knit community of this Devon fishing village wider events like the suffragette movement, the cataclysm of the Great War, and the flu epidemic that followed, as well as the generosity and cruelty of the sea that provides Clovelly’s main livelihood – though tourism plays its part and the impact of the “outsider” is not always positive.

This is Few’s first novel, but she is already an accomplished and widely published local historian. Clovelly is described with such vividness that it is itself a character in the novel. Few’s gift lies in how she imbues her writing with a sense of period in the smallest details: the drudgery of life in service, the subtle and not-so-subtle indicators of social ranking, the lack of privacy in a community where others help in times of trouble but where neighbors inevitably know what one might want to keep private. I have never seen Clovelly; I now very much want to.