Maria McCann enters the fray of 1640s England and Civil War with considerable gusto in this ambitious first novel. A coldly gruesome murder committed by her youthful narrator opens his account, and the bloody siege of his lover's Diggers colony ends it. Narrator Jacob Cullen, educated but now a servant, flees his royalist household, taking his bride of just an hour and his brother. In a second act of terrible brutality, he beats and rapes his wife. Becoming a pikeman in Cromwell's New Model Army, he befriends Christopher Ferris, an idealist disaffected by the Army and in search of a less tainted freedom. And so the two desert and head for London and the pleasures of Cheapside--and each other. Jacob becomes "a fornicator of unnatural appetite, in thrall to an Atheist... I was in love". But Ferris is intent on establishing a commune, a prospect Jacob reviles, yet to keep his lover he has no choice but to join the motley band.
McCann's writing is rich in detail and colour--the muck and mud of battlefields, London's crowded stench, and the colonists' back-breaking work on the land; she manoeuvres her large cast of characters adeptly, and her dialogue is nicely pithy. The flaw that blights the plot is a yawning gap of credibility: Jacob's acts of violence--the murder, the rape and much more--which occur almost out of the blue simply don't fit his persona. His motives are too thin; nor is he presented as an unbridled brute masquerading as sanity itself. So how are we to "read" him? Even Ferris's accusation--"A man's own evil is his devil and yours, Jacob, is mastery"--suggests too little and comes too late. Jacob's pivotal place in the narrative is discredited by the lack of psychic underpinning and this mars an otherwise robust debut. --Ruth Petrie