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Susan’s Bookshelves: Lily by Rose Tremain

Rose Tremain’s Lily was published last year and I’ve just read it in paperback which, unusually, was cheaper than the Kindle version.

We’re in the mid-nineteenth century. An abandoned newborn, Lily is rescued by a policeman and taken to the Foundling Hospital founded by Thomas Coram.  At this point I sighed. Not very original, I thought.  Jacqueline Wilson explored this territory pretty thoroughly in Hetty Feather (2009). From a different angle so did Jamila Gavin in Coram Boy (2000) and there have probably been others.  But I was wrong. Tremain turns it into something quite different: a suspenseful tale of love, cruelty, revenge and justice. In places it reminded me much more of Sarah Waters’s novels such as Affinity and Fingersmith than of anything about else I’ve read about Coram hospital.

The point – historically – about Coram Hospital is that was benignly set up to rescue the children of mothers without support and other orphans from a life of abject poverty, crime or worse. The intentions were good but, inevitably the routines were harsh by modern standards. And such places sometimes attract the wrong sort – sadists, paedophiles and the like – to work there. They always did. And despite the thoroughness of modern checking systems, tragically it still happens occasionally. And that’s fertile ground for novelists although it doesn’t make for easy reading.

The worst thing about Coram Hospital to any common sensible, decent 21st century person who has ever been responsible for children is that the babies were sent to foster homes – often quite kind and loving ones. Then when they were six they had to be returned to the hospital never again to meet the family which had nurtured them.

Thus Tremain’s fictional Lily is blissfully content on a farm in Suffolk with people who love her for six years. The return to Coram’s Hospital would be brutal by any standards but Lily is targeted by a staff member called Maud who treats her with violent cruelty and it gets a great deal worse as she gets older.

The story is told on two time levels so that we meet the teenage Lily managing to live independently by working for a wigmaker who “freelances” privately as a high end prostitute. This alternates with Lily’s experiences at Coram Hospital until in the end the two strands meet.

Along the way is Lily’s childhood friend Bridget, another desperately traumatised child who doesn’t get any sort of peaceful ending. Sam Trench the policeman who finds her and re-enters her life later is an interesting character too and his wife epitomises decency and kindness. Conflicts of interest abound.

But the very best thing about this meaty novel, which I liked so much that I gobbled it in two days, is the ending. The adult Lily is expecting something terrible to happen to her because of something she’s done. In the event it doesn’t and if this were a piece of music I’d describe it as ending in a very gentle but hopeful major key with the dynamic at a tender mezzo piano. Tremain is very good indeed at nuance.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Black Ivory by Norman Collins


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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