Today I am delighted to be hosting a stop on the blog tour for The Conviction Of Cora Burns. My post is presented with thanks to Anne Cater, who invited me to take part, and No Exit Press for my copy of the extract.
Set in 1880s Birmingham, Carolyn Kirby’s stunning debut The Conviction of Cora Burns tells the story of Cora, a young woman born in a prison to a convicted criminal she never knew but from whom she fears she has inherited a violent nature. Perfect for fans of Sarah Schmidt, Anna Mazzola and Hannah Kent.
Cora was born in a prison. But is this where she belongs?
Born in a gaol and raised in a workhouse, Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside her.
Haunted by memories of a terrible crime, she seeks a new life working as a servant in the house of scientist Thomas Jerwood.
Here, Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to be the subject of a living experiment. But is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora…?
With the power and intrigue of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions and Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, Carolyn Kirby’s stunning debut takes the reader on a heart-breaking journey through Victorian Birmingham and questions where we first learn violence: from our scars or from our hearts.
‘Hold still.’ The photographer looked up from his device but avoided Cora’s eye. ‘No. Stiller than that. For a count of four. And please do not blink.’
Did he think her made of metal? Glowering, she pressed her ribs against the prison stays. The camera gave off a gin-sharp whiff of ether.
‘Ready now?’ He twirled a scrap of grey hair around his middle finger then lifted the lens-flap. ‘One… Two…’
His fidgetiness was vexing. And it was a liberty to take her likeness just before release as if she was a habitual criminal. Meaning it to look like a mishap, Cora blinked.
The photographer’s stone-grey eyes locked on to hers, and then something in his countenance shifted. His face, less comical than Cora had supposed, seemed to whiten. It was as if he had seen, through his lens, the hidden awfulness of her crimes. Her stomach
‘Beg pardon, sir.’
‘Once more, then.’ His attention slid to the floor. ‘Stay on your mark.’
Cora’s clogs shuffled inside the chalk-drawn feet on the boards and again the photographer looked into the lens. It was a dry-plate camera; dark shiny wood and black leather bellows. Expensive. And he didn’t look much like a prison photographer; his coat was too clean.
He lifted the lens-flap and started to count but his voice this time was twitchy.
In the corner, the stout wardress folded her arms into a threat.
Window bars threw a black grid on to the glossy brown wall.
The lens-flap squeaked shut and the photographer’s mouth formed a shape he must have intended to be a smile. As he bent to the equipment at his feet, he slipped a sideways glance at Cora.
‘And now I have some questions for you.’
‘What sort of questions?’
The wardress lunged, keys beating against skirts, and a finger jabbed between Cora’s shoulder blades, making her stumble forward. The photographer continued to rummage in his bag then placed a sheet of printed paper on the lid of the wooden travelling box. He took out a silver pencil, holding it up to the light to push an exact amount of lead from the point as he slid another look at Cora.
‘So, your name is Cora Burns?’
She shrugged and the wardress poked her in the arm. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘How old are you?’
Something in his stance stiffened. ‘Do you know on which day you were born?’
‘July the twenty-ninth.’
‘I see, very good. Few know it so well.’
Of course she knew the date of her birth, but that wasn’t it.
‘Do you have a trade?’
‘I meant before you were committed to this place.’
Cora knew perfectly well what he’d meant but the keenness of his curiosity seemed improper, even for a likeness-taker.
‘Laundry maid, sir.’
‘In a private house?’
‘No, sir. In the Borough Lunatic Asylum.’
There was no jerk of distaste, only a raised eyebrow. He bent forward to write, backside stuck up in the air and breeches
ballooning over his felt gaiters. If her release hadn’t been so near, she’d have laughed out loud.
‘What, pray, has been the length of your sentence?’
‘Nine… nineteen months.’
‘And your crime?’
She’d guessed this was coming but the question still brought a flutter to her belly. A sudden vision of a bootlace in her hands choked the words in her throat.
The wardress glared. ‘Tell the gentleman!’
But the photographer waved a hand. ‘No matter, madam. I can find out soon enough. The girl’s reticence does her credit.’
Cora fought a tug of dizziness as she pictured him writing her offence on to his sheet of bond.
‘And your parents, what sort of people are they?’
‘I don’t know, sir. I never knew them.’
‘They are dead?’
His fingers tapped a complicated rhythm on the travelling box and his high forehead creased. ‘So what else can you tell me of yourself?’
‘I was brought up under the Board of Guardians. In the Union workhouse.’
‘You were a foundling?’
The silver pencil fluttered between his thumb and forefinger.
Cora wondered, briefly, whether to lie but she’d a fancy to see his reaction to the truth.
‘My mother abandoned me here when I was not three months old.’
‘Here? At the gaol?’
‘At the gatehouse, do you mean?’
‘No, sir. She gave birth to me in her cell and when she departed from here left me behind.’
He stood straight now and unmoving. ‘So, your mother was a convict too?’
‘And her crime?’
‘I know only her name, sir. Mary.’
The photographer sprang forward to write.
Cora breathed out and pressed tight fists into the coarse apron across her stomach.
She was glad that she would never know the answer to his last question for it was not impossible that the cause of her mother’s conviction had been the same as her own.
The Conviction Of Cora Burns is available from Amazon.
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