On Starlit Seas

Written by Sara Sheridan
Review by Gini Grossenbacher

1823, Valparaiso, Chile. The novel’s opening highlights the journey of widowed author, Maria Graham, and follows her to Brazil, where she encounters Captain James Henderson, a smuggler in the chocolate trade. At the outset, their fortunes intertwine as Maria books passage to England aboard his ship, The Bittersweet. Meanwhile, fellow smuggler, Willow Simmons, has secreted a jewel inside a bar of chocolate and Maria finds it, casting fear and doubt on her newly budding relationship with Captain Henderson. Thus continues their journey in which the ship and the starlit seas beyond lend the backdrop for Maria’s struggle for a voice beyond society’s constraints on women.

Although the multiple interwoven points of view took this reader some getting used to, the relationship between the Captain and Maria develop with depth and compassion, setting it above the usual romance. The depictions of the chocolate trade and life aboard a sailing ship of the era are well-researched and compelling. The descriptive language is at times breathtaking, as in the scene on land at San Fernando when Maria and her party observe a waterfall and its pond below. “Over the drop, a luminous pond lay below them like a pale magic lantern. It was as if the moon had plummeted into the water and smashed open. Engulfed in darkness, with only a scatter of stars above… a secret lake of light.” This is a novel to be savored with a bar of chocolate as the reader experiences life aboard ship and again on land during the days of sail.