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Winchelsea

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It started off with intrigue, a tale retold from another who heard it first hand, of a girl, rescued at birth, raised with intention, but destined to become her own person, strong brave and independent. But just when you are getting into her story, a child she still is at this point, it goes off on such a tangent I was confused what the author was even thinking. It goes from a smugglers tale, based on real people, places, and events, a tale of a girl facing the loss of the only father she ever knew just as she learns he is not all she thought, to being about a child, for she is still a child of 16, exploring her burgeoning love for another woman, and her lust for her adopted brother��oh, and nearly being raped by her true father, and that’s where I lost interest. In Winchelsea, we are transported to the mid 1700s. Goody Brown, rescued from drowning as a baby and swiftly adopted by her rescuers, grows up in the small smuggling town of Winchelsea. At sixteen, she witnesses the murder of her father and is given little choice but to fill her father's shoes for the very same gang that brought him to his untimely demise. With help from her brother, Goody joins a rival gang and plots her revenge. There is a wrapping up at the end were Goody is allowed a final say in her story but by now we don't really know who she is any more or how she feels about anything that has happened to her.

The main character of Goody was enthralling to read about through her character journey and transformations. She is quite flawed and rebellious and takes part in many questionable deeds and adventures but you cannot help but love her. The attempts to create an eighteenth-century atmosphere in the novel feel false and a little ‘theme-parky’. Characters, when drinking beer, only drink porter, presumably because that’s a more ‘old-fashioned’ sounding beer; they wear, doff and remove tricorns with great regularity (not the hat’s name at the time when people actually wore them), they ‘go marketing’ rather than to the market. Strange word choices are frequently used as a way of making the book seem olde-timey, a number of characters ‘festivate’ in this book, a word that seems to have been used be nobody at no-time. Most egregious is the name of the main character, Goody. The word is short for ‘Goodwife’ and was used in Puritan areas particularly as interchangeable with the word ‘Mrs’. Even the most famous Goody, Goody Two-shoes, was really called Margery.It has come to my attention that “presentism” has begun to be used regularly in cultural, historical analysis of writing, theater, movies, etc. While I can see some reviewers leaning into a “form” of implications of present day mores infiltrating this book, I am inclined to believe that is not a major issue. Winchelsea” is as much a book about the characters in it, as about the land they were living on. I very much liked that the author has put so much effort into painting not just where this book was placed, but also its history. And have done so without ever abandoning Goody or any other characters that were telling her story. It was rather done THROUGH her and what she’s done. What holds the novel together as much as its driving plot are its incantatory atmosphere and spellbinding language. Nights are noisy with owls and fieldfares, “their lonely twits falling down through the dark”, while meaning oozes via sound and rhythm from antique vocabulary such as “fallalery” and “yelloching”.

In regards to censoring this book, which has been suggested (for adults only) I am adamantly opposed. I find this especially abhorrent for the reasons given of same sex coupling and incest. Was it really incest then or now…there is no easy answer to this, which was surely excellent plotting and writing by this articulate and clever author. It made be think, which is a gift from any story.It starts off being told from Goody's perspective and I will say the first 30% is fairly gripping. You are right into the action for sure but once 'revenge' for the Father's murder has been delivered the next middle section of the book feels overly long and winding. I really struggled to get through it because there didn't feel like anything much to keep me reading but eventually it livens up again only to then experience reading whiplash when suddenly at 75% of the way through book it is suddenly being told from another characters point of view and worst of all a character we have never encountered before. Goody's experiences, thoughts, etc are gone. We have no idea what she is thinking any more and I found myself not caring Wow, this book went down plot caverns and hidden treasure troves that surprised and sometimes horrified me. But let me say I was never bored!! Goody was a very interesting and often surprising character. Her dramatic beginning in some way or other shaped her for her whole life. Despite being raised as a lady with as much comfort and education as her foster family could muster, she never was one. Always wild, she didn’t care very much about the pressure of social life and it’s rules. She was never certain as to whether she was man or woman, she lived her life as both and neither. I think that was one of the things I liked the most about her: she was living her life the way she wanted it to be. And at the same time, she went through so much at such a young age. The way she was portrayed gave me an inside as to what emotions she felt and through this she felt much more close to me. The Winchelsea of the 1740s that Preston details sits atop a network of subterranean passages used by smugglers to store booty from the continent. The murky and treacherous world of piracy, corruption and gang warfare is the focus of this exhilaratingly twisty novel that is something of a warren of connected and echoing recollections itself. Another element of this eighteenth-century story which is twisted into weird shapes by its twenty-first century sensibilities is the trans narrative. There are a surprising amount of stories of gender crossing in eighteenth-century fiction and reality, from the female alter-egos of Molly House attendees to the stories of female husbands and people like Charlotte Charke living as a male but when Goody does this, it’s treated from a twenty-first century perspective. Goody lives for a while as a man called William and finds themself comfortable as a non-binary person at the end of the novel. All the other characters seem aware of the notions of sex and gender being separate and of gender performativity and the notion of a gender spectrum. When one character has met Goody as William, even when he finds out that William is not a born-man, keeps using male pronouns - a polite and social thing to do nowadays but not really within the scope of an eighteenth century understanding of sex and gender where they still believed a big jump could un-invert a women’s genitals and make them male. I’m not saying that eighteenth-century people would have been necessarily cruel or barbaric towards a male-presenting person but they simply would have not conceived it the way we do, and nor would the trans person themselves.

The LGBTQ rep here was complex, thought provoking, well presented and felt authentic in terms of the restrictions of the time period/societal pressures. The letter from Goody at the beginning says that her true narrative, through the different lenses of the text has turned into something of a novel. I found this destabilising to the text immediately as she talks about ‘the novel’ with the certainties of a modern writer, where the term was still a disputed and nebulous term in 1779 when she is writing. She also makes the point that most of the narrative was told by her to a man and so warns the reader that the book may sound like a man writing as a woman more than the real lived experience of a woman. This caveat seems to have no meaning or purpose within the world of the book but instead refers to the fact the (twenty-first century) novel is in fact written by a man and making excuses for the fact it sounds like a man writing a woman. This is still further complicated by the fact that Goody does in fact live as a man for a large section of the book which sort of makes her a pseudo-male narrator anyway. If you aren’t familiar with Winchelsea and it’s smugglers you probably won’t mind this so much. If you like a bawdy tale with sex, booze, sailing and bloodshed then give it a go. Just be prepared for abrupt story changes, unfinished threads, and a feeling that there was so much more to be explored. Goody was a reasonably consistent character and we had a couple of well thought out supporting cast members.I didn’t find the writing particularly engaging, the author throws in long antiquated words every so often as if to show off their intelligence, but it isn’t in keeping with the characters portrayed and just seemed pompous. It goes off on tangents about the Jacobite’s and the king over the water, that felt like they belonged to another book he wants to write, not part of this one, in fact he hints at further stories at one point, sigh. The original focus of the book is lost, and rushed at the end. In fact throughout its all over the place, unfinished threads, stories that start then go nowhere. Characters changing their character without explanation, I could go on. Did not satisfy this reader in any way, in fact I think I’d do a better job myself!

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