Today I have a review of my latest buddy read with Pauliina @ The Bookaholic Dreamer. We share a love of historical fiction and this was our third one, and it led a lot of fun discussions as always!
Published: 4th April 2019
Genre: Historical Mystery
Trigger warnings: Racism, sexual references, drug use
1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, goes on trial for their murder. The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.
For the first time Frannie must tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, and it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.
But through her fevered confessions, one burning question haunts Frannie Langton: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?
This story begins by setting the scene for an interesting and complex mystery that keeps you alive with speculation until the end, in a journey of concealed motives and forbidden romance. Told from a unique perspective that amounts to highly sophisticated character portrait, it combines a gloomy historical backdrop with writing that is both immensely powerful and deeply affecting.
It is a book which explores the topics of race and slavery in raw detail, and at the very heart of it is the narration of Frannie Langton herself. Although I did have a few problems with certain aspects of the storytelling, the way she recounts her often tragic experiences is tremendously compelling and there were numerous passages that leave an impact on the reader.
The year is 1826, and Frances is due to face trial accused of the murders of her master George Benham and his wife Marguerite, who were both found stabbed to death late at night. We are then guided through the events in her life up until her incarceration, of how she grew up a slave in Jamaica and suffered physically and emotionally under the despicable rule of John Langton.
Eventually, Langton takes Frances to London and leaves him with his friend George Benham, who employs her as a maid in his large house. There she discovers that the two men have effectively controlled her life, but she also develops a close bond with Marguerite. Intrigued by Frances’ love of reading among other things, the Madame pursues an intimate romance.
Over time, the Madame’s behaviour becomes more erratic and unpredictable, but Frances remains greatly devoted to her. But on the night of the murder, she was lying asleep beside the body of Madame, and immediately charged despite her claims of innocence. At the trial, witnesses accuse her of multiple sins, but only Frances knows what really happened.
The plot essentially takes place over the course of three acts, with the events in Jamaica and London all building up to Frances’ trial, and bringing about the enduring question of how she came to be accused of the Benham’s murder. This mystery kept me guessing, and the results in the end were somewhat unexpected and full of revelations.
One of the key things you notice at the start as that the story is told entirely by Frances, but in the second person, as she relays the events of her life to her lawyer. Her narrative is captivating and fairly tragic, such is the way she is abused and manipulated by others. I felt really sad for her at times, but I like the fact that she was also very strong-willed and able to stand up to those who held power over her.
There is a lot of emphasis placed on the relationships Frances had with other characters. I would have liked to have seen a little more of the romance, as this would have helped to justify the extent of her feelings towards Madame and made the trial just a little more exciting. It all subsided a bit too soon and as such the second half of the book lacked fluidity in places.
Madame was a curious character. At first she seemed effervescent and embracing, but gradually she loses that spark and becomes less likeable in the process. By contrast, there are those who are truly impossible to like at any stage. Mrs Linux is prejudiced towards Frances throughout, while Langton and George Benham represent the worst kind of humanity.
The themes in this book are portrayed very powerfully, in the way that Frances in treated by others, and how she describes her own feelings as well as the attitudes towards her. The author did a great job in not only conveying this depth of emotion, but also in highlighting her flaws. In a way, this helped me connect with Frances and root for her even more.
In keeping with the context of the story, the settings are dark and full of underlying menace. We see that in particular with the depiction of London in the late Georgian period, but it also applies to Jamaica, where the beautiful landscape is juxtaposed with the unhappy life that Frances can only escape when she picks up a book.
Despite having a relatively slow pace, the writing style is unique and poetic, and there are multiple quotes that you could highlight as they carry exceptional meaning. In between chapters, there are occasional extracts from the testimony at Frances’ trial, which made me more fascinated about how it was going to end and who really killed the Benhams. The one real problem I had, however, was the storytelling. It was disjointed for me at times and the narrative was not always easy to follow.
Overall, this is a forceful and thought-provoking read that fully, eloquently confronts the subject of slavery and how a black person was viewed in that era. Frances is a strong protagonist whose words speak volumes and along with the mystery element, it is her narrative that makes this book memorable. If I had engaged more with the mode of storytelling and if some things had not been left unresolved, then it would have been something close to outstanding.
A British author of Jamaican descent, Sara Collins studied at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for 17 years, but has always held a love of Gothic literature. Her writing career began when she completed a Master’s in Creative Writing at Cambridge University.
The Confessions Of Frannie Langton is her debut novel, and it was nominated for the Costa Book Award for First Novel, and the Lucy Cavendish prize in 2019.
A moving book with a fascinating mystery and a narrator who deserves her place in the title. Not perfect, but I enjoyed it.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5