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Review: Wrecker by Noel O’Reilly

Review: Wrecker by Noel O’Reilly

‘Shipwrecks are part of life in the remote village of Porthmorvoren, Cornwall. And as the sea washes the bodies of the drowned onto the beach, it also brings treasures: barrels of liquor, exotic fruit, the chance to lift a fine pair of boots from a corpse, maybe even a jewel or two.

When, after a fierce storm, Mary Blight rescues a man half-dead from the sea, she ignores the whispers of her neighbours and carries him home to nurse better. Gideon Stone is a Methodist minister from Newlyn, a married man. Touched by Mary’s sacrifice and horrified by the superstitions and pagan beliefs the villagers cling to, Gideon sets out to bring light and salvation to Porthmorvoren by building a chapel on the hill.

But the village has many secrets and not everyone wants to be saved. As Mary and Gideon find themselves increasingly drawn together, jealousy, rumour and suspicion is rife. Gideon has demons of his own to face, and soon Mary’s enemies are plotting against her.’

Wrecker is a beautifully atmospheric novel that conveys the close-knit and suffocating nature of life in a small village with not enough for its inhabitants to survive on day to day. The villagers must resort to wrecking: taking the goods from shipwrecks and selling them on; even taking items directly from the bodies of the dead washed up on the shore in acts of both necessity and vanity. It’s during one such outing that the reader meets Mary, who takes a pair of boots from a wealthy deceased woman and finds herself a suspect for a crime much more gruesome than that which she has committed.

Over the course of the story, there are times when you find yourself rooting for Mary, yet there are many others when it’s easy to find her actions unsettling and almost wish that she stopped to think things through and make better choices. However, it’s easy to forget that Mary is living in a house with only her sister and ailing mother, and so she must do what she can for the three of them. With this weight on her shoulders and the villagers judging her for supposed lapses in morality, perhaps her moments of vanity, greed and need to find something for  herself (whether objects or people) can be excused a little. Mary reads as rough around the edges and aware that she may not be an altogether likeable soul, but that she is morally ambiguous in a world that doesn’t afford people the opportunity to be as virtuous as they claim to be as the novel unfolds lends a level of honesty and reality to her tale. She is flawed, but she is human and ultimately strives to be better in a situation that doesn’t make it easy for anyone to be wholly ‘good’.

Gideon is a likewise somewhat unsettling character in his religious fervour, though works well in highlighting the intensity of the attempts to convert those seen as beholden to pagan ideas and viewed as ‘backwards’, such condemnation of alternate views something that makes for discomforting material for the modern reader, but an unfortunate reality of the tale in context. Despite numerous and frequent religious affirmations from a range of characters, there’s the sense that, like Mary, they are pretending to be something they’re not for reasons of personal gain or to secure a perceived advantage over their friends and neighbours, painting another layer of gritty reality over the story.

Wrecker is an immersive read and one that I enjoyed for its cast of flawed characters and sharp look at poverty, prejudice and religion. Thank you to Harper Collins for sending me a copy!

Publisher: Harper Collins (HQ)

Pub date: 12th July 2018