The Branded Man by Catherine Cookson

The Branded Man by Catherine Cookson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Continuing on with my immersion in the works of Catherine Cookson, I delved into The Branded Man. Published in 1997, one year before she died, I think in this work, more than in her previous, we can really tell that she was struggling with her writing, having difficulties with her sight, and that much of her work not only had to be dictated, but that she was also only able to undertake the editing and correction process with the assistance of readers and dictation. In many cases, her sentences are quite abrupt, almost as if she needs to remind herself of where she is at in the story. Yet, despite these impediments, there is nothing to detract from what a remarkable story teller she is, because at the heart of what Catherine Cookson does, is tell a cracking story.

In this book, set around the turn of the century, despite the title of the book, the central character that dominates more than any other is Marie Anne, the youngest child of her family, born late to a mother who never wanted her. As we get to know her and her family, the usual resentments simmering under the familial relationships start to surface, with the branded man – a man with an unusual birth mark blighting his facial features, depicted as the aloof artistic hero.

As I am discovering, as usual with Cookson, there are a number of problems with her presentation of the mother/daughter relationship, but at least this time, there seems to be some sort of rational basis for what would otherwise be an irrational hatred of her daughter, as we learn that Marie Anne was conceived in what was an act of rape (leaving aside that at that time, it was legally impossible for a husband to rape his wife, as her consent to sexual activity with her husband was taken as an absolute upon her marriage). Yet, despite the trauma of the conception of Marie Anne, there is remarkably little compassion shown by the author for that trauma, and instead, she is depicted as being somehow unnatural for not being able to love this child that she conceived out of rape. Yet, conversely, when Marie Anne becomes pregnant as a result of a sexual contact that could not be construed as anything other than rape, she becomes almost deified because of her love for her child.

I do find it extremely troubling in Cookson’s body of work that there seems to be different categories of compassion for the almost mundane suffering of women, particularly when it comes to sexual assault. Rape is common place, illegitimacy (which Cookson had personal, and very hurtful experience of) becomes a too-oft employed plot device, and women can be depicted as spiteful, unnatural and full of hate for little or no reason. And yet, this book was a riveting read from start to finish, capturing life in both rural Northumberland and the seedier side of London with the mastery of a born story-teller.

View all my reviews

Published by Deborah Siddoway

Dickens enthusiast, book lover, wine drinker, writer, lover of all things Victorian, and happily divorced mother of two lovely (and very tall) boys.

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