I loved this wonderfully sensual, erotic and sumptuous fairy-tale novel about a young woman who, against all the odds, is a survivor. The gorgeous cover illustrates perfectly the colour, imagination, distortion, magic, luxury and decadence of the world of the courtesan in the mid-1700s, when, apparently, one in five women in London worked as a prostitute.
Tully Truegood is the narrator of her own story. It opens with her in Newgate Prison, awaiting trial and probably the death penalty for murder. She is writing her story in the form of a letter to an ex-lover, knowing that it is unlikely to ever be read, detailing how her life brought her to such a catastrophic end. And what a tale it is.
After her mother’s death in childbirth, Tully is left in the hands of her father, a no-good drunk gambler, and cared for by the family cook. For reasons not disclosed till later in the book, Tully is married off at the age of twelve to a young man whom she does not know. This is the defining event in her life, and is what ultimately leads to her arrival in Newgate. But her path is diverted when her father marries Queenie Biggs. Queenie brings into the house not only order, clean clothing, good food and education, but also love, care and companionship for Tully in the form of two young women, Hope and Mercy.
Queenie, in fact, owns the Fairy House: a high-class, popular brothel in London. She has a number of courtesans under her care and control, of which Hope and Mercy are part, and in due course Tully also. Tully is not only gifted in the art of lovemaking: she also has the gift of magic, expressed in many and various ways, and recognised by the magician Mr Crease. Over the course of the next few years, Tully rises through the courtesan ranks, falling in out of love, her supernatural powers beguiling and terrifying those around her, her notoriety following her far and wide.
Tully never gives up. This is a society and time where if you were female, it didn’t matter a jot if you were born into wealth or poverty: you were simply a commodity to be traded, used and discarded at will by men. Tully always believes in love and in her self-worth. She knows she is clever; she knows her beauty and desirability is not just in her looks; she uses her magic gift carefully; she is loyal and determined to break out of the courtesan life – becoming self sufficient and independent in her own right.
As in any good fairy tale, wickedness and malevolence are never far away, and Tully has to use all her powers to outwit and destroy the evil that continually threatens to destroy her and those she loves. This is all told in the most wonderful writing: sensuous, descriptive and so vivid. Some of the writing is graphic, erotic, but it is never inappropriate. The sexual awakening of a young woman is delightfully, deliciously and outrageously told. You will never look at a maypole the same way again.
This is the first adult novel for this writer, who has written it under a pseudonym. She is actually Sally Gardner, a children’s writer and illustrator who has won many awards for her books. A quick bit of Google research reveals that many of her children’s books also have magic and fantasy in them. Here she has brought this magic realism to an adult novel, managing to make it believable and entertaining: a joy to read.
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
An Almond for a Parrot
by Wary Delaney
Published by HarperCollins