Book review: Wrecker by Noel O'Reilly

When ships founder on the rocks of a remote Cornish cove, their cargoes are swiftly '˜picked clean' by the wreckers'¦ but young Mary Blight likes to bide her time and then move in to loot the corpses washed in by the tide.
Wrecker by Noel OReillyWrecker by Noel OReilly
Wrecker by Noel OReilly

Steeped in local superstition, Mary touches every corpse she passes ‘for luck’ but when she rips the expensive leather boots from a drowned noblewoman’s body, Mary could well be signing her own death warrant.

Noel O’Reilly’s stunning debut novel, set in a Cornish backwater village in the early 19th century, caused a stir even before it was published when it was snapped up for a five-figure sum in the fastest pre-empt literary agent David Headley had ever seen.

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Inspired to write after seeing the cover of a book called Lost Cornwall featuring a grainy photograph of a girl carrying pails of water down a steep lane in 19th century Newlyn, O’Reilly set to work on the life and trials of Mary Blight and used scenes taken from real life incidents in Cornish history.

Billed as a ‘gloriously gothic update on Jamaica Inn,’ Wrecker harnesses all the elemental darkness, menace and thrilling atmosphere of Daphne du Maurier’s famous Cornish novels, weaving a gripping tale of love, superstition, faith, jealousy and betrayal.

At its heart is an insular Cornish village, isolated from its neighbours by its treacherous waters, adrift in pagan beliefs, blighted by poverty and where ‘wrecking’ is a way of life, and a way of surviving the grinding poverty.

Shipwrecks are part of life in the village of Porthmorvoren. The locals know that when the sea washes the bodies of the drowned on to the beach, it also brings treasures like barrels of liquor, exotic fruit, and maybe even a jewel or two.

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When Mary Blight combs the beach long after the other looters have left with their booty, she spots the corpse of a woman wearing a fine pair of soft leather boots and pulls them from her feet. And it’s only then she notices that the body’s earlobes have been savagely bitten off, no doubt to steal a pair of expensive earrings.

Unfortunately for Mary, the village scold, known to all as Aunt Madgie, has seen her bending over the corpse, blood on her lips from the struggle to wrench off the boots, and now the old crone is just waiting for her moment.

The horror of the bitten noblewoman makes headlines in the press… that the villagers are such savages to bite jewellery off a corpse causes a national outcry. The Porthmorvoren Cannibal is the stuff of nightmares.

When Mary rescues Gideon Stone, a married Methodist minister who is washed ashore, lashed to a barrel and half-dead, she cares for him in her cottage, despite her neighbours’ disapproval.

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Touched by Mary’s sacrifice and horrified by the superstitions and pagan beliefs that the villagers cling to, Gideon sets out to bring light and salvation to Porthmorvoren by rebuilding the chapel on the hill.

But the village has many secrets and not everyone wants to be saved. As Mary and Gideon find themselves increasingly drawn together, jealousy, rumour and suspicion is rife. Gideon has demons of his own to face, and soon the reckless, forthright Mary’s enemies are plotting against her…

Cornwall is enjoying something of a literary renaissance, whether that is escapist beach reads basking in the glittering sea, sun and sand of the stunning coastline… or deeper, darker historical novels like O’Reilly’s Wrecker which explore the rugged landscape and the county’s rich industrial and cultural heritage.

Here, we witness traditional Christian beliefs jostling uncomfortably with centuries-old folklore, superstitious fears and pagan rituals which have flourished in this remote community since the influence of Church and clergy waned.

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Anyone who was not born or raised within its boundaries is regarded as a ‘foreigner’ and the arrival of ambitious and driven ‘Methody’ minister Gideon Stone breeds only suspicion, rumour and dangerous jealousies.

And it’s in this febrile atmosphere that the mercenary Mary Blight – a sharp-witted and cunning early feminist desperately trying to escape the bonds of what seems to her a prison of poverty and domestic expectation – embarks on a perilous game that can only play into the hands of her enemies.

Powerful, evocative, tingling with tension and beautifully written, Wrecker is a masterful first novel…

(HQ, hardback, £12.99)