I would like to thank the publisher Corgi Books for sending me a copy of the book (this in no way affected my view of the book or my review that follows.)
The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson (read my interview with the author here) has just recently been published to much praise. When I received it, I had no idea what I was in store for (I received a proof copy with no blurb on the back!) and so I dove into it without knowing what genre or indeed even what story I was entering into. This, I might add, is actually a great way to start reading – I went in with no preconceptions or ready-made ideas about the story and therefore judged it entirely on its own merit.
A very curious tale indeed . . .
Out of the blue arrives an exotic young woman from a foreign land. Fearless and strong, ‘Princess’ Caraboo rises above the suspicions of the wealthy family who take her in.
But who is the real Caraboo?
In a world where it seems everyone is playing a role, could she be an ordinary girl with a tragic past? Is she a confidence trickster? Or is she the princess everyone wants her to be?
Whoever she is, she will steal your heart . . .
This book is rich with beautiful language, vivid images and scenes, a strong sense of place and an abundance of interesting characters. It is based on the real life story of Mary Baker, nee Wilcocks, a real-life imposter who fooled people in England in the 1860s that she was really Princess Caraboo, an exotic young woman from a far away land. The book has fictional elements, and adds character and drama to make the story even more exciting and readable.
Catherine Johnson has a real flair for creating scenes and imagery that makes the reader feel like they are really there in that time and place:
He left the room and went out into the sunshine. It was a perfect summer’s day: swallows criss-crossed the high blue sky, and the distant hills shimmered. On the terrace his sister and Diana were giggling over some joke of Edmund’s. Fred could hear the wheels and hoof beats of a two-seater coming down the drive…
She makes England in the 1800s feel completely accessible and feel like home; her language is poetic and vivid. Often, when reading historical novels, I struggle to immerse myself into the story because the language creates almost a barrier between myself and the world I’m trying to delve into. This wasn’t the case at all with this book.
Catherine also builds characters and personalities to great effect to add depth to the story. One of the main characters, Cassandra, the daughter of the Worrall family, is a sweet and kind enough girl, but is endlessly fickle and easily swayed by outside forces. She really has no idea of her own mind or indeed her own feelings, which seem to change along with the weather. She acts as a stark and effective contrast to Caraboo, who, behind her mysterious exterior mask, is headstrong and sure of herself. She can take care of herself in a way that Cassandra can’t, because Cassandra has been cushioned and protected by her privilege and good fortune, whereas Caraboo (Mary) has had to build a resilience to world and all of its cruelty. She builds herself this new identity because she has been horrifically abused and tortured in the past. The only person she can trust is herself. This is so different to Cassandra, who takes an immediate liking and forms an immediate trusting bond with Caraboo. Cassandra is bored and sees in Caraboo a sister, a friend, someone to occupy her.
Caraboo has an effect on everyone around her, and everyone becomes either mesmerised by her or suspicious of her. Cassandra’s brother Fred, initially portrayed as a selfish, one-dimensional character with a one-track mind, quite rightly distrusts her from their first meeting. However, this is an example of how much power Caraboo has on other people, because slowly she begins to win him around and eventually convinces him of her identity as an estranged princess. What follows throughout the novel is how she uses Fred’s trust, and the trust of people around her, to gain what she needs in order to stay alive.
Because we know a little bit of Caraboo’s past, as a reader we can sympathise with her, we understand why she does what she does. Catherine Johnson has built a character in this book with two identities; both of whom we fall in love with. Her journey is fascinating, fast-paced, heart-wrenching and uncertain. She faces terrifying enemies and makes sweet and loving friends. But how will it all end? What will happen if they find out who she truly is?
This is an absolute treat of a novel. I genuinely raced through the book and came away from it having had a truly valuable reading experience. I urge you to try it.