The Conviction of Cora Burnsby Carolyn Kirby Published 21 Mar 2019
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|Publisher||No Exit Press|
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Set in 1880s Birmingham, Carolyn Kirby’s stunning debut The Conviction of Cora Burns tells the story of Cora, a young woman born in a prison to a convicted criminal she never knew but from whom she fears she has inherited a violent nature. Perfect for fans of Sarah Schmidt, Anna Mazzola and Hannah Kent.
Cora was born in a prison. But is this where she belongs?
Born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse, Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside her.
Haunted by memories of a terrible crime, she seeks a new life working as a servant in the house of scientist Thomas Jerwood.
Here, Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to be the subject of a living experiment. But is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora…?
With the power and intrigue of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions and Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, Carolyn Kirby’s stunning debut takes the reader on a heart-breaking journey through Victorian Birmingham and questions where we first learn violence: from our scars or from our hearts.
"The Conviction of Cora Burns" Reviews
‘To believe in her future, she must uncover her past’
The Conviction of Cora Burns is the debut novel from Carolyn Kirby. Just published on 21st March by No Exit Press, it is described as ‘a stunning debut that takes the reader on a heart-breaking journey through Victorian Birmingham and questions where we first learn violence: from our scars or from our hearts’
Historical fiction is always a very informative genre but I think Carolyn Kirby takes it one step further as we explore the story of Cora Burn, using case works and studies by eminent, although fictional, medical professionals of the time. Their thoughts are scattered in document style, like those of a medical journal, throughout the book, bringing a real authenticity to the case of Cora Burns.
So who was Cora Burns? That in itself is a very difficult question to answer. Born in a gaol to a mother who was imprisoned there at the time, Cora grew up moving between institutions, witnessing events that no young girl should be exposed to at such a young age. Her experiences impacted her life greatly, never having lived in an environment of warmth and love. When Cora finally reached the age to depart the institutional setting, she was confused, torn between her reality and her thoughts. She was given an opportunity of work in the home of a prominent scientist and, although skeptical about it, Cora had very little choice but to accept. This was no ordinary household though and Cora was soon faced with more than one difficult situation to handle. Her approach to dealing with these obstacles was very heavily influenced by her history but the question really being asked throughout the book is within the concept of nature versus nurture. Was Cora inevitably going to react as she did or could other external influences have directed her to an alternative outcome?
The Conviction of Cora Burns is quite a fascinating read, at times reading like an official study in human behaviour. The sense of time and place is brilliantly portrayed throughout the novel, giving the reader a real experience of life in the Victorian era. The poverty, the hunger, the smells, the fears, all described with a captivating narrative. There is a Gothic element to Cora’s story, adding to the intrigue and atmosphere of the tale.
The Conviction of Cora Burns is the story of a young woman who has various sides to her personality. She is wicked, violent and quite fierce yet also prone to bouts of melancholy and upset. Cora Burns is confused and as the years pass, her judgement is clouded and her memories blurred. Cora Burns is a tragic figure, a person surrounded by heartbreak and sorrow, a person you cannot but feel was dealt a very tough hand, one that was sure to affect her approach to life.
The Conviction of Cora Burns is a compelling tale, one that will pull at your heart-strings. A very insightful and intelligent debut, a must for all lovers of Victorian history and for all historical fiction buffs.
‘’Cora Burns. Born to crime.’’
A young woman, named Cora Burns, hears the gates of Birmingham Gaol closing behind her. She is free from her incarceration but not from her past. A horrible dead has been haunting her for three years and doubts over her mother will not let her rest. Her chance comes when she starts working as a maid in the house of a scientist who hides his own secrets, feeding his own obsessions. In the search of her past, she needs to discover herself and this is the most terrifying prospect.
‘’And what of yourself, Cora Burns? Where would the crosses lie upon your own chart of temper? To the left or to the right? More agreeable than these here, or less so?’’
The story of Cora Burns is memorable not because of the plot but because of the questions it poses and the opportunities for discussion. The plot is intricate and complex but it is not unique. We’ve seen this premise before and we will see it again. This is not a negative feature when the writer has the means to create a successful result and Kirby definitely knows what to do. Through confident and atmospheric writing and with an accurate, faithful depiction of the era, she focuses on themes that are always relevant and highlights the endless fascination to unlock the depths of human nature.
What is the difference between social assumptions and reality? What is it that makes each one of us unique? Billions of people call this planet ‘’home’’, each one of us with a unique background, a personal story and yet closely connected to each other. What constitutes our temper? How easily can our mood change? How can our temperament lead us to happiness and success or to misery and punishment? Can our genes make us criminals? Is evil inherited and developed? Can we escape a dark heritage? And, ultimately, what turns a human being into a ruthless murderer?
A Historical Fiction novel that poses such questions can only be successful in conception and execution alike. Through scientific essays, medical accounts circa 1880s that may be fictional but no less interesting, following a route that passes through the horrible reality of the gaol and the asylum, through the slams where mothers need to sell one of their children in order for the rest of them to survive and the wealthy estates whose owners play a wicked game with the fate of those who are less fortunate, we are guided by a young woman who is one of the most gifted characters I’ve seen in recent Literature. I’ve always had an affinity for the name ‘’Cora’’, ever since I first read The Last of the Mohicans and Cora Burns didn’t disappoint me in the slightest.
Although it is hard to end such a complex story in a fully satisfying and plausible way, Kirby succeeded. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the closure which I found to be realistic and a bit unpredictable based on my personal perception of the story. A truly exciting debut.
Also, repeat after me: A well-written novel doesn’t need silly romances to become ‘’interesting.’’
‘’Even though it was morning, lights still burned in some of the terraced houses across the street. The creamy glow of parlours fringed by velvet and lace would not long ago have seemed as remote from Cora Burns as a gentleman’s country estate. But no longer.’’
Many thanks to Carolyn Kirby, Catherine Sinow and Dzanc Books for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.
My reviews can also be found on https://theopinionatedreaderblog.word...
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Deliciously dark and gorily gothic. Cora Burns. A favourite character of 2018 even though the book isn't out until 2019. Is that allowed? Yes it is as the book and Cora are so good.
What a fascinating read! Nature v nuture, experiments in laboratories, photographs which can maybe reveal your inner soul,and spooky things going on behind the walls of a seemingly respectable house.
This one has more twists and turns than a very very twisty thing!
I think I may have applauded the end.
Book two now please!
Cora Burns – now there’s a character you won’t forget in a hurry. A strange and complex girl this one. Born in prison and now working as a laundry girl, it seems luck is not on her side. But what she lacks in wealth and circumstance, she makes up for in sheer determination and grit. This girl is more than capable of kicking someone who might try to hurt her.
There’s a lot going on in this novel but it’s so well written that it never feels overdone. The writing is fluid, gothic and really easy to read. It’s compelling. It’s like walking into a lab and being amazed at all the jars – in each one there’s a story, a concoction of sorts, but Cora is at the centre of it all and holds all the threads together. A very strong and impressive character and her world is one I wanted to linger in for as long as I could. 300 pages in the proof copy left me wanting more!
Cora goes from the asylum to a house owned by the strange Mr Jerwood. He takes pictures of people, studies them to see which characteristics criminals share for example. How nature and nuture can tell us about society. There’s a lot of fascinating issues in this book. Dead things in jars too. I was like a kid in a sweet shop – so vivid were the gothic images.
You know something weird is going on in that lab. But as Cora finds out, is she the one being studied? She has a past she wants to find out more about, a locket she keeps safe. But is life ever about one path?
This one has more twists and turns than the twistiest of paths!
I think I may have applauded the end.
Book two now please!
Intriguing, very dark gothic historical fiction, a great debut with some beautifully immersive writing. Maybe slightly over long.
Recommended for lovers of historical novels and crime. Full review to follow.
Step into Victorian Birmingham and the life of Cora Burns. . .
If You Dare?
The Conviction Of Cora Burns, tells the life story of Cora Burns. We start with her humble beginnings, born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse. To Cora, eventually starting a position as a ‘between maid’ for Thomas Jerwood Esq. The novel spans 1874-1886, we get a real sense of who Cora was, is and who she intends to be, given the right chance.
The novel is beautifully written, the author brings alive industrial Birmingham, you can almost spell the city if it wasn’t for the fact I was gripped with tension and holding my breath. During the last 50/100 pages, I found myself having to think ‘take a deep breath’, I just became so engrossed with Cora and her story. When the ending is finally revealed I wanted to read the whole novel again!
The novel opens in 1885 with 20yr old Cora being freed from a life of servitude at the Borough Lunatic Asylum. She has served her 19 month sentence and awaits release.
When she is released and as she makes her way to Thomas Jerwoood’s residence we become aware of the very few options open to women in Victorian England. With the obvious one (working girl) Cora firmly rules out. She hasn’t hit rock bottom YET!
The novel details Cora’s upbringing within the workhouse and her best friend (sisterly relationship) with Alice Salt. It is this friendship which gets Cora through the darkest times of her childhood.
‘It’s best not to have a mother. Everyone who does can’t stop blubbing’ – Cora
Cora is tough, feisty and yet you just know she is carrying some emotional baggage. Yet, despite her not being a ‘model citizen’ I warmed to her instantly. I liked her and I rooted for her throughout the entire story.
Thomas Jerwood is a man whose morals we cannot quite guess. We the reader become aware of his research and experiments much before Cora. But even then, I wasn’t sure where it would all lead and what it would ultimately build up to.
‘A baby is no more likely to be born to crime than he is to emerge from his mother’s womb able to play a polka’ –
Mr JW Armstrong
‘An addiction to crime runs through the generations of a family as surely as short stature or red hair’ –
Thomas Jerwood Esq
We also follow the research journals of Dr David Farley M.D the assistant medical officer of the Birmingham asylum. Which I found incredibly fascinating.
My previous employment was in the mental health sector and a huge part of our study would be to study theories of yesteryear. Whether it be the kind and humane treatments of The York Retreat or the callous abuse that took place at Bedlam.
I found the novel to be very authentic and the author had really researched into the individual viewpoints we see in the novel.
Life at the Jerwood residence is far from easy for Cora, when she eventually makes ONE friend Violet. It seems a friendship set to be doomed. Cora is wary of all strangers. . .
‘Nothing of what went on in the servants hall at the asylum must ever happen here. She’d die first’ – Cora
Despite my initial liking of Cora and the way in which she carries herself. I did feel that we the reader, never truly know what she is capable of.
An OUTSTANDING debut novel that covers many aspects of the Victorian era. From the class structure to the poverty inflicted by industrial greed; to the stigma surrounding mental health.
The Conviction of Cora Burns is a remarkably accomplished debut from Carolyn Kirby, a gothic piece of atmospherical historical fiction set in the Birmingham of the Victorian era. She relates the story of Cora's life in a narrative that goes back and forth in time, born in prison to a convict, brought up in a workhouse where she forms a friendship with Alice, and works in a asylum. This is a dark and intense emotional roller coaster of a read, with a central character that is flawed and at times her actions make for uncomfortable reading, but the odds are stacked against her, and she fears the violence within herself. She is taken on as a servant by the scientist, Thomas Jerwood, a man interested in studying people and their behaviours. She gets better acquainted with Violet, his ward, and begins to harbour suspicions as to what exactly her role is and of the circumstances in which she came to be employed by Jerwood. This is a story of loss, friendship, identity, intrigue, secrets, and morally questionable science.
Kirby writes a multilayered, complex and well constructed novel with rich descriptions of Victorian poverty, stink, the deeply entrenched class divisions that leave the poor with such few choices, the asylums, and the historical period's morality. Her characterisation is excellent, particularly that of the hard edged Cora, of the trials and tribulations she faced in her life, all of which have helped to shape her into who she is, and the secrets that lie in her past. She is a memorable character, one that will insist on lingering long after the reader has finished reading the novel. I especially liked the way Kirby painted a picture of her interior life, and the debate between nature and nurture. A brilliant read which I recommend to readers interested in this historical period and appreciate the darkest aspects of the time. Many thanks to Oldcastle Books and No Exit Press for an ARC.