The Conviction of Cora Burns

Written by Carolyn Kirby
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

The Conviction of Cora Burns is a wholly original and highly compelling novel that delves into the psyche of a young woman and explores an early version of the nature-versus-nurture debate when it comes to behavior.

In the mid-to-late 1800s in England, Cora Burns becomes the unwitting object of a psychological study when she is finally released from the prison workhouse. Cora has spent her entire life as a ward, having never known her mother. Between the workhouse, the orphanage, and the gaol (jail), Cora has never known an easy life. Upon release, she is summoned to be a between maid in the household of a well-to-do member of society, a man who has his own ulterior motives for Cora coming to work for him. While there, she meets a young girl, Violet, who lives at the house, but who may not be who she seems to be. Cora constantly tamps down violent urges, as she is haunted by memories of Alice Salt, a girl she knew while growing up; the two of them orchestrated a terrible crime, though Cora’s memories of that day are hazy.

In between the storyline are the thoughts and conclusions of two ‘scientists’ who offer competing theories about biology versus circumstance—one is familiar with Cora and the other with her mother.

This brilliant book is a masterful piece of literature that will pull you in from the very beginning with its intelligent discourse about personality and behavior. Cora herself is an unforgettable protagonist. The shifting narrative leads the reader down one path, only to end up on another. This novel would be an ideal book club choice as well.