Dublin at its darkest
NICK RENNISON enjoys an unusual and macabre story from the 19th-century streets of the Irish capital
The Coroner’s Daughter By Andrew Hughes Doubleday, 336 pages, £13.99
Few works of historical fiction have such an arresting opening sentence as this second novel by Irish author Andrew Hughes. “For my 18th birthday,” it begins, “father promised me the hand of a handsome young man, which he duly delivered mounted in a glass bell-jar.” In its blend of the macabre, the unexpected and the blackly humorous, it sets the tone for the story that follows.
Set in 1816, Hughes’s tale is narrated by Abigail Lawless, daughter of the north Dublin coroner. She shares her father’s fascination with forensic science and chafes against the restrictions that her class and gender place upon her life. When a young nursemaid in a neighbour’s house, who has concealed her pregnancy and then supposedly killed her newborn son, is herself found dead, Abigail is certain that there is more to the story than the authorities believe. Venturing out of the safe confines of her home and her everyday routines, she begins her own investigations.
Abigail rapidly finds herself in deep waters. Powerful people want the whole sordid business hushed up and will twist the law to ensure that it is. Mr Darby, the charismatic leader of an evangelical Christian sect, seems to have secrets to conceal. One of his followers, a young woman who was once Abigail’s friend, is found drowned in a reservoir. And a sinister figure, a mysterious man with a lazy eye, appears to be stalking Abigail through the city streets. Her own life looks to be in danger.
The Coroner’s Daughter raises some questions it doesn’t answer satisfactorily. Would a young woman of that era and class, even one so spirited and intellectually adventurous as Abigail, be free to act as she does? Does the complicated and twisting plot ring entirely true? Despite these reservations, The Coroner’s Daughter is undoubtedly a richly atmospheric, unusual and very readable historical thriller.
Andrew Hughes’s darkly humorous novel opens with a father’s strange gift to his daughter on her birthday: body parts in a bell-jar