Scarlet Town (Laurence Jago)

Written by Leonora Nattrass
Review by Julia Stoneham

Research can be a tricky area for writers of historical fiction. Some authors use it to fill out their pages, thickening their text with facts, sometimes in clumsy chunks, which can seem at odds with the writer’s own style. In Leonora Nattrass’s case, this does not happen, because her prose flows as smoothly and impeccably as that of Laurence Jago, her storyteller and central character, as he experiences and witnesses the development of an intriguing and complex sequence of events. Exposition is another writer’s tool of which this author seems wary, using it only delicately, sparingly, and effectively, through Laurence Jago himself when, in May 1796, he arrives back in Cornwall to find Helston, his hometown, in chaos due to its archaic electoral system. Laurence chronicles the ensuing events, revealing himself, his relationship with the place, and the community’s situation, plus his relationship with Anne, whom he loves, despite his having been previously rejected as a suitor.

Copious diversions, including the arrival in the town of the famously celebrated “Sapient Hog”, complicate electoral strategies, which descend into almost farcical violence, resulting in arson, murder, deception, accusation, fraud, and poisoning. There are confrontational stand-offs and stand-downs before an encouraging form of logical acceptance is achieved, hopefully avoiding more confusion, tragedy, deaths, and near-deaths. All of this is engagingly, charmingly, wittily and unpatronisingly laid before us.

Although Scarlet Town is part of a sequence of novels, it is presented as a standalone novel, which readers new to Leonora Nattrass’s output may initially find daunting. However, they will soon find themselves intrigued by events in her Scarlet Town, immersed in its problems and fascinated by its populace. The freewheeling delights and subtleties of this novel should not be missed.