Harper: The Snakes by Sadie Jones

The Conviction of Cora Burns

Are we born bad, or do our circumstances shape us?

That's the question burning at the heart of Carolyn Kirby's debut novel, The Conviction of Cora Burns. The eponymous protagonist was born in the Birmingham Gaol (jail) to a mother she never knew. Twenty years later--after a harsh childhood in a workhouse, and several years as a laundress at an asylum--she returns to the gaol as a prisoner, having committed a yet-to-be-revealed crime. On the day of her release, she's sent onto the streets with nothing but her wits, her temper and a tarnished, broken medal bearing a cryptic engraving. Cora is certain that the medal's missing half will lead her to her long-lost friend, Alice Salt--a girl with whom she shared a profound bond, a twin-like resemblance and an unspeakable childhood transgression. Instead, the medal leads her into the dark machinations at the home of Thomas Jerwood, a "gentleman scientist" who is determined to prove that criminality is hereditary.

Kirby seems to be challenging readers to understand the social and economic contexts that often determine people's fates, and to view what Jerwood cruelly calls "the lower orders" with empathy and nuance. With its complex anti-heroine and its dark, twisting plot, The Conviction of Cora Burns is haunted by transgenerational trauma, twins and doubles and the painful legacies of maternal sacrifice. All at once, it's a historical thriller, a ghost story and a sneakily political treatise on the need for a more equitable society. --Hannah Calkins, writer and editor in Washington, D.C.