Of all of the Cookson novels I have read so far, this one is my favourite, and, in my opinion, the one that is the best written. As you would come to expect from such a prolific novelist, she creates a realistic setting, engaging characters, and a pacy narrative lawyered with relatable conflict and suspense.
Having read Cookson’s biography, it is hard, sometimes, to disengage from a historicist’s reading of the book. Was she ploughing some of her own maternal issues into her character of Rory as she explores the impact of being born on the wrong side of the sheets? It makes for an even more interesting read.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book, however, [spoiler follows] is the return of Janie, Rory’s wife. Assumed drowned at sea, she reappears Lazarus like, after Rory has remarried and is expecting a baby with his new wife Charlotte. Janie was portrayed in the early chapters of the book as a hard-working, good woman, with commendable concern for Rory’s friend John George as he faced paying the price for Rory’s crime. Yet when she returns, she is made into something monstrous, a horrific caricature of the woman she had been before her disappearance. Her hair is white – she returns as an old woman, ‘foreign’ with a youthful face. What is worse, is that when she confronts Rory, he reinvents his past to accuse her of always harbouring a hardness inside her, that he just didn’t see it at the time.
There are a lot of issues of class and sex at play here. Was Cookson uncomfortable with the notion that middle class Charlotte’s baby should be bastardised with the return of this first wife? Was she reluctant to disturb Charlotte’s happy ending? Because at the end of it all, it is poor, hard-working, decent Janie that does the right thing and refuses to reveal who she is to the wider world and claim her rightful place (and inheritance that would follow) as Rory’s living wife. Despite Cookson seeming to do her utmost to demonise Janie, she was the one most deserving of the reader’s compassion and pity.
I think the complexities of the book are what make it the most appealing to me. There is a lot to unpick. Gambling is also the least of the concerns of the novel. It is not really about the problems that can arise because of gambling. What it is about is what Cookson does best – complex relationships, family secrets, and people just getting by as best they can when the world throws problem after problem at them.