Lily: A Tale of Revenge by Rose Tremain

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Reviewed by Harriet

From the first moment that we meet Lily Mortimer, we know her secret. We know it because she dreams of her own death – not a peaceful one, in bed, surrounded by her loved ones, but something a great deal darker:

She feels the noose, made of thick hemp rope, go round her neck and knows that the noose’s cunning is to be in perpetual coitus with a huge and bulbous knot behind her head. The knot nudges the base of her skull. Soon a trap beneath her feet will open and she will drop into the void, her legs dangling like the legs of a doll made of cloth. Her neck will snap and her heart will stop.

Lily is nearly seventeen, a quiet, pretty girl. Her skilled hands have enabled her to work at Belle Prettywood’s famous Wig Emporium, she goes to church every Sunday, and her life seems peaceful and successful. Only Lily herself knows that she’s a murderer.

Rose Tremain makes the reader wait a long time before the circumstances are revealed. Meanwhile, the narrative swings between Lily’s childhood history and the present day of the novel. The story begins in 1850, when Sam Trench, a young policeman on the night watch in Bethnal Green, hears wolves crying by the park gate. The animals scatter as he approaches, and he sees what has attracted them: a tiny newborn baby girl, wrapped in sacking, has been left by the gate. Her little foot is bleeding – the wolves have bitten off a toe. Filled with wonder and terror, he picks up the child and carries her through the cold wet night to hand her over at dawn to the guardians at the London Foundling Hospital. Founded over a hundred years earlier by the philanthropist Thomas Coram, this organisation was not a hospital as we use the term today, but rather a large and successful orphanage. Like all the abandoned children who were placed there, Lily is sent to a live with a foster family in the countryside for her first six years. Rookery Farm, deep in the Suffolk countryside, is a blissfully happy home, mainly owing to Lily’s foster mother, Nelly Buck, who ‘in the sweetness of her disposition, had the power to bring those around her to a contemplation of their own best selves’. It all sounds idyllic, and Nelly and Lily form a powerful bond. But at the age of six, Lily is cruelly torn away from the heaven of the farm and plunged into a life of cruelty, deprivation and abuse. 

The years that follow make painful reading, as the monstrous Nurse Maude singles Lily out from among the children, all of whom are treated abominably because, as she tells them, ‘they were evil and that all through their lives this evil would be in them, inherited from the vile acts their mothers had performed to bring them into the world’. Lily becomes Maude’s special victim, subjected to the horrific form of abuse which she calls Absolution. But owing to the dual timeline of the novel, the reader knows that as a young adult Lily has moved on from Coram and has taken a responsible and skilled job with a benign and caring employer. She has also made the acquaintance of Sam Trench, who, it turns out, has been keeping an eye on her ever since he took her to Coram all those years ago. He’s a police superintendent now, but has never forgotten Lily – as his wife tells her, ‘He says it was the most important thing he ever did in his life. Sometimes he says it was the only good thing’. So yes, he’s a married man, but strong feelings grow between him and the girl he rescued. The closer they get, the more Lily fears that he will find out her secret and will be forced to arrest her.

There are many fairytale or folkloric elements in this heartrending story, but they are blended with vividly evoked historical realism. Tremain’s previous novel, Islands of Mercy [reviewed here], was also set in the Victorian era, and she has said that she was left with ‘a head-full of research on Victorian society’, with particular emphasis on the plight of children and the poor. She’s put it to good use here. With so much poverty and distress and suffering Lily could easily have become a misery memoir., but Lily, despite her childhood trauma and the guilt that is hanging over her manages to retain an innocence, a goodness of spirit and a capacity for joy. The two women who care most for her, Nelly in her childhood and Belle when she’s a young adult, are very different but both wholly goodhearted, loving and supportive. So is Sam Trench, though Lily’s joy in her developing relationship with him is overshadowed by her fear of the inevitable outcome. There is so much humanity here, and a serious questioning of moral certainties: there’s no denying that murder is wrong, but when the reader learns the circumstances of what Lily has done, it’s impossible to condemn her. 

I would have described this book as unputdownable, and certainly I was absolutely gripped by the story all the way through. But, as the ending approached, I was so involved with Lily and her fate that I actually postponed reading the final chapter because I was so afraid of what might be going to happen to Lily. When I did finally read it, it was clear that there could not have been any other ending. It’s one that is potentially very happy indeed, but not without some possible provisos. I can’t say more. I loved every minute of this novel. 

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Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Rose Tremain, Lily: A Tale of Revenge (Chatto & Windus, 2021). 978-1784744564, 288pp., hardback.

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