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An impatient, personable young man from London has himself rowed from the brig Henrietta to the New York shore of 1746 with a bill of exchange in his pocket. It’s for the huge amount of one thousand pounds – and must be honoured within sixty days by trader Master Lovell, who owes this sum to the London company who issued the bill.

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Deeply suspicious of this ‘strip of a boy who comes demanding payment of an awk’ard-sized fortune, on no surety‘ – and with London a six-week sail across the ocean, meaning a fraud couldn’t be uncovered before the money falls due – Lovell and his fellow merchants have a make-or-break decision to take. Is the mysterious Richard Smith genuine? A bold-faced crook? Up to political mischief? Or attempting something much darker?

For he’s up to something, everyone agrees. He openly admits to it. Yet despite hints and red herrings nothing will prise the exact truth out of him – not offers of violence, rooftop chases, a duel, a branding, nor the threat of the hangman’s noose. Smith keeps his secret until the final page.

Francis Spufford’s novel is a fine plum pudding of a book, rich with spice and full of silver-sixpence-like surprises. I gobbled it up, swallowing it down (along with envy of an author who can create such a clever game of pass-the-parcel) layer upon layer of story from which the reader must tease-out clues and try to get a feel for the secret lying at its core.

The language is gloriously dense in places. But if it is occasionally purple it is the colour of a Georgian brocade waistcoat, the texture of the cloth opulent under one’s exploring fingers, yet not necessarily giving an accurate clue to the wearer’s true identity. This is arguably necessary, since modern language would struggle to convey the landscape of a city where church spires look down on a display of trophy human scalps; where the reality of a duel is a blundering struggle through deep snow, with spurting blood and unexpected consequences; where one of the great cities of the world is in the bold process of creating itself.

Then there are Spufford’s wonderful characters: the feline Tabitha, who hates novels yet quotes Shakespeare; the voluptuous Mrs Tomlinson, who makes Smith a generous offer he cannot, for politeness, refuse; the intriguing Achilles, ‘a tall African of about Smith’s age, wearing livery, with long limbs and a tight knob of a head like the bole of a dark tree’  who has, for a slave, a complex relationship with Septimus Oakeshott, the Governor’s young aide. My heart still breaks over Septimus.

Historical novels don’t all have to be bodice-rippers. They can be Wolf Hall. They can be Golden Hill. I was going insane trying to work out what was at the bottom of it all – now I’m mad to find out whether there might possibly be a sequel.

 

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