I must admit I'd never heard of Gavin McCrea's debut novel before it appeared on the Guardian's Not the Booker longlist. Sadly it didn't make the shortlist, but anyway it was offered to me by the publisher and I was intrigued enough to accept. I've just finished reading it and I was well impressed.
This is the story of Lizzie Burns, an Irish woman from Manchester, who lived for many years with Frederick Engels. To write Lizzie's story was obviously a challenge in many ways, because Lizzie left no written records and is barely mentioned in biographies of Marx and Engels. But, as Eleanor Marx (known here by her childhood nickname Tussy) wrote, Lizzie 'was illiterate and could not read or write but she was true, honest and in some ways as fine-souled a woman as you could meet'. And my goodness, Gavin McCrea really brings her to life.
The novel swings between Lizzie's present, in 1870s London, and her youth in Manchester. It was her sister Mary who Engels first began a relationship with, when he was working there in his father's factory. A fascinating, difficult and ultimately unstable woman, Mary died at the age of 40 and Engels swiftly moved on to Lizzie, who remained with him till her death. All this is fact, but of course what brings this novel to life is Lizzie's voice - tough and vulnerable, honest and secretive, Lizzie is a wonderfully convincing creation.
As the present of the novel begins, Lizzie and Frederick have just moved to a rather grand house in London's Primrose Hill. They've come to London to be near to Karl Marx and his large family, who have been more or less totally supported financially by Frederick for many years. Lizzie is both pleased to be living in such a house and furious at the responsibility it brings with it and the need to have servants, who she first tries to bond with and later to control, neither very successfully. She doesn't think much of Karl, is rather dubious about his aristocratic wife Jenny despite her attempts to be friendly, but is fond of Tussy. As for the Marx's long-term maid Nim, Lizzie is extremely bothered by the fact that the illegitimate son she gave birth to a couple of decades ago is believed to be Frederick's son. She has to entertain large numbers of Frenchmen fleeing from the recent unsuccessful revolution, to go to grand dinners at the Marx's. All this she endures, with rather a bad grace. But Lizzie has a secret life -- she has managed to find her old lover, Moss O'Malley, now living in London and organising a group of angry Irish Fenians, and finds she can't keep away even though she knows, or thinks, he is only seeing her for the money she manages to slip to him from time to time.
All this barely scratches the surface of what goes on in this highly readable, complex and thought-provoking novel. Lizzie is so pragmatic about relationships:
I’ve seen enough of this world to know that most of us have to accept men we don’t feel for, and I’m not sure it’s for the worst in the end. A marriage of emotions can’t be lasting. It wouldn’t be healthful if it was.
And yet... Certainly she enjoys her physical relationship with Frederick, and feels deeply threatened if she suspects him of infidelity, though she herself is attracted to other men. She is, in fact, a wonderfully convincing mixture of emotions, and hugely likeable.
I didn't know much about Marx and Engels, and wasn't sure how much more I really wanted or needed to know. But the view of them I got from Lizzie's perspective was so refreshing and entertaining that I don't suppose I'll ever be able to take them all that seriously anyway.
So -- as you can tell, I really loved this novel. I'm not sure how good a job I've made of telling you how great it is, but believe me, it's truly excellent. Why not read it and find out?