Kim Sherwood ~ A Wild & True Relation
We open during the Great Storm of 1703, as smuggler Tom West confronts his lover Grace for betraying him to the Revenue. Leaving Grace’s cottage in flames, he takes her orphaned daughter Molly on board ship disguised as a boy to join his crew.
But Molly, or Orlando as she must call herself, will grow up to outshine all the men of Tom’s company and seek revenge – and a legacy – all of her own.
Woven into Molly’s story are the writers – from Celia Fiennes and George Eliot to Daniel Defoe and Charles Dickens – who are transfixed by her myth and who, over three centuries, come together to solve the mystery of her life…
I picked this book up just after seeing the play Orlando (based on Virginia Woolf’s novel) and imagine my surprise that it’s about a girl named Molly who is pretending to be a boy named Orlando. Now, although this seems like a coincidence, this book is perhaps a mini homage to Woolf’s book, as she is frequently referenced throughout. More on that later.
At its heart, A Wild & True Relation is a brilliant swashbuckling adventure with duels, betrayal, lust and love; it instantly gripped me and made me want to run away to Devon and join a dastardly crew to sail the Seven Seas! But it is actually a deep and insightful analysis on female identity that is explored through its characters – both real and imagined – over time.
Molly’s story on its own would be a fabulous one, as Sherwood writes vividly about her love for being free when she is Orlando, but also wanting to be able to do what she likes and be herself without hiding away. Her love of the rugged landscape strewn with cliffs is almost a metaphor for her feelings towards Tom and the crew – despite the desire and desire for other avenues, something keeps pulling her back.
Molly’s tale is intertwined with her role in literature, and features scenes and letters from many authors who have examined and enjoyed her story over time. I’m slightly torn about this; much as I found these pieces of information about Dickens, Defoe and others, extremely interesting, they did upset the flow of the book. I’m not sure if I’d have preferred them at the end, in a separate section or not (as this might not have worked either), but when reading, these interruptions took me out of Molly’s story.
Characters are rich and diverse, ranging from free trader rapscallions to society ladies, Samuel Johnson and Robert Louis Stevenson. Women are at the core of this book, but they are written with flaws, seeking fame, vengeance and – perhaps most importantly – acceptance.
Although it is a slow burn, and there is repetition, I loved this book. Swordfights and heroics, combined with danger, betrayal and a quest to belong, make for an extremely gripping story. There are a few unanswered questions, but something about Molly’s tale struck me and I am still thinking about it weeks later.
Thanks to Virago Books for my proof copy. Opinions my own.