Happy Paperback Publication Day to the lovely Sara Collins and one of my favourite books this year.
1826, and all of London is in a frenzy. Crowds gather at the gates of the Old Bailey to watch as Frannie Langton, maid to Mr and Mrs Benham, stands trial for their murder.
The testimonies against her are damning – slave, whore, seductress. And they may even be the truth. But they are not the whole truth.
For the first time Frannie has the chance to tell her story. It begins with a girl learning to read on a plantation in Jamaica, it ends in a grand house in London, where a beautiful woman waits to be freed.
But through her fevered confessions, one burning question haunts Frannie Langton: could she have murdered the only person she ever loved?
“I would never have done what they say I’ve done, to Madame, because I loved her. Yet they say I must be put to death for it, and they want me to confess.But how can I confess what I don’t believe I’ve done?”
This remarkable debut novel is one of those books that reaches into your soul. Forbidden love, secrets, lies, obsession, madness, brutality, rage and murder. This book is filled to the brim with them all and takes you on an unforgettable journey as alleged murderess Frannie Langton tells her story.
The Mulatta Murderess is what the papers have called her. But her name is Frannie Langton. The former slave is standing trial for the murders of her Master and Mistress, George and Marguerite, but says she couldn’t have done it because she loved her mistress. But that’s all she will say. She offers no evidence of her innocence, nor any defense. Instead, she writes her so-called confessions that tell the story of her life from her beginnings on a Jamaican plantation to the present day as she awaits judgement.
“Reading was the best thing and worst thing that’s happened to me.”
I loved the use of Frannie writing her own story and how it wasn’t chronological. The switches in the timeline skillfully wove the past and present together in a way that felt fresh and compelling. It also increased tension, foreshadowed events, and kept us guessing while also answering some questions in piecemeal. The excerpts of trial testimony sporadically inserted into the book were the perfect way to provide flashes of another perspective while showcasing the many prejudices and uphill battle Frannie was facing in her case.
This story deals with many important and hard to digest issues from the era, such as slavery. Though as a house girl Frannie is spared things such as working in the fields in the searing heat each day, she is still treated as less than human. And when Miss-bella, her Mistress on the plantation, decides to teach Frannie to read and write she feels lucky and doesn’t heed the warnings from Phibbah, another slave, that an educated negro is a threat to the white man. But she soon learns Phibbah was right. Reading the appalling brutalities that Frannie and other slaves are subjected to is hard at times but it is an important and potent part of her narrative.
“I was all anger. Anger a drumbeat. Anger, steady as rain on glass. Anger, like a hot spurt of blood from a wound.”
At an author event I attended back in May Sara Collins said, “novels for me come from characters” and talked about how she didn’t have a book until she knew her characters. This is evident for me in what a complex and wonderful character Frannie is. She’s honest, raw and flawed. She’s brave and intelligent. She refuses to be told what her life will be and dreams of more. Perhaps the most prolific part of Frannie’s narrative is anger. She talks about her rage at being looked down on, when she witnesses injustice and at being told she can and will only ever be a slave. She is very self-aware about her anger and there are times she’s ashamed of it, but overall she owns and accepts her rage, even seeming to be fuelled by it. You see it present in varying ways throughout her life and I have a lasting image of her hands cramping into fists by her sides. With all this anger you’re probably thinking she’s obviously guilty, but what I love about this book is it turns so many assumptions on their head. As you read it isn’t so hard to imagine that maybe she didn’t do it. Most of the time I understood her fury and thought I would have felt the same in her shoes.
The other characters in this novel are all equally well written. While her Masters were very different, they were also both vile, evil men who mistreated her and I despised them both. She had a very different relationship with each of her Mistresses: Miss-bella was someone I loathed but also pitied at times. She taught Frannie to read but knew the danger that brought and she still mistreated her in other ways. Madame Marguerite was the woman Frannie loved and who she claimed was in love with her. She is a selfish and self-indulgent character but other than that I found myself vacillating between many feelings about her over the course of the book as although Frannie is in love with her and clearly worships her, as an outsider you see how she manipulates, uses and even puts Frannie in danger by her actions.
“My life began with some truly hard things, but my story doesn’t have to, even though nothing draws honesty out of you like suffering.”
Though this is one of my favourite books I’ve read this year, I’ve found this review hard to write. So much happens and it’s hard to know what details to give without spoiling it and to eloquently describe how this book made me feel. But I needed to write this review, to tell others about this incredible story.
The Confessions of Frannie Langton shows us the worst of humanity but also some of its kindness. We see loneliness, hopelessness, desperation, brutality, anger and death, but also strength, hope, love and passion. It’s a haunting, beautiful, somber, eye-opening, emotional and penetrating story that gives a voice to those that have been forced to remain silent and muted. At the time the book is set people of colour were seen as less than human and race is a big part of this story, but for me, this is overwhelmingly a story about what it means to be human. How the differences in our skin don’t change the way we feel, love or dream. And a reminder that how the way we treat others says much more about ourselves than anyone else.
Sara Collins’ debut novel is a masterpiece and is not only one of my favourite books this year, but ever. She deserves every bit of the accolades and recognition coming her way. It’s been two months since I finished it and I still find myself often thinking about Frannie and her story. I also can’t stop telling people they should read it. I definitely fell a bit in love with the imperfect but wonderful Frannie and her story and am going to be the first in line for a ticket if I get my dream and they make it into a film.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sara Collins studied law at the London School of Economics and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years. In 2014 she embarked upon the Creative Writing Masters at Cambridge University, where she won the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize of Re-creative Writing and was shortlisted for the 2016 Lucy Cavendish Prize for a book inspired by her love of gothic fiction. This turned into her first novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton.