#BookReview — The Woman Behind the Mirror by Jan Selbourne
The Woman Behind the Mirror
By Jan Selbourne
Marry in haste, repent at leisure is the last thing on Sarah Forsythe’s mind when she and the son of a local minister elope to the American colonies. She wasn’t to know abandonment, misery, poverty and shame would follow. As the colonies rebel against British rule and the siege of Boston worsens, alone and afraid, Sarah hides her desperation behind a hard shell. To survive, she is forced to steal from the safe of her employer. Instead of the cash she needs, she finds Bank of England documents. Sensing they might have some value, Sarah protects them through months of deprivation until she finally secures passage home to England. Unknown to her, two men are following, intent on claiming those documents. At any price. Bank of England fraud investigator Neil McAllister faces the biggest challenge of his career when a woman from Boston demands a reward for returning lost documents to the bank. Then two men with the same name and nearly identical stories arrive in England, each claiming ownership of them. Who is lying? Or are all three accomplices in a plot to swindle the bank? As the obstinate, secretive woman gets under Neil's skin, he trusts that she was an unwitting witness to the crime of cold-blooded betrayal and treason before the fall of Boston. Now it’s up to Neil to protect Sarah because the traitor wants her dead.
"You are, I believe, the third son of a country Methodist minister," her father drawled. "What, pray, do you have to offer?"
Nothing. Mr David Langford had nothing to offer Miss Sarah Elizabeth Forsythe. But Sarah thought she was in love, and her father was a tyrant. Thankfully, David had a plan. They would run away to the American Colonies, where David promised her a wedding and a home of her own. Their life would be perfect. It would be absolutely perfect.
But America was not quite what Sarah had thought it would be like, and her marriage was nothing but a sham. Left destitute, alone, and caught up in the colonial rebellion against British rule, Sarah faces two impossible choices. She either dies in the gutter, or she earns a living any way she can…
From an impetuous decision that would lead to disastrous consequences to a complicated and unprecedented plot to defraud the Bank of England, The Woman Behind the Mirror by Jan Selbourne is the wonderfully evocative story of one woman's fight to stay alive in the face of adversity.
With a rich and compelling narrative, Selbourne has penned a book which is part historical fiction, part romance, part thriller, and part mystery. It is a story that captured my imagination, and it was one that was utterly enthralling. This novel commanded my attention from the opening paragraph and continued to hold it until that final full stop.
Sarah is a character who begins this story as an idealistic young woman who longs for adventure and a way to escape an arranged marriage. Trapped between her domineering father and a wholly unsuitable courtship, Sarah chooses the courtship. What happens to her next could never have been foreseen. Sarah is a character that suffers terribly in this book, and she becomes quite a hard and abrupt woman, who at times is difficult to like. Yet, with a gentle nudge, Selbourne reminds us that Sarah has this beautifully compassionate soul who will share her meagre rations with strangers or even a dog. Sarah is non-judgemental, and yet she fails to see her own worth. As the story progresses and Sarah becomes more acquainted with Neil McAllister, the real Sarah begins to shine through this cold exterior that she displays to the world. I thought Sarah's depiction was fabulous. Her story is heartrending, but at the same time, it is filled with hope.
I adored the depiction of Neil McAllister. Initially, Neil and Sarah are incredibly wary of each other, and neither is quite sure of the intentions of the other. Neil is one of the only characters who despite his initial judgement, discovers the real Sarah. He sees things that others do not, and what he sees he likes a lot. His determination to keep Sarah safe from her enemies, but more so, his acceptance of her past, made him a worthy hero for our brave protagonist. Neil was a character that I enjoyed reading about. He is clever, quick of wit, and more importantly, kind.
The Woman Behind the Mirror — was ever a book so aptly named? The mirror reflects the different stages and hardships in Sarah's life – from a hopeful young woman, a painted, perfumed whore, a homeless woman fleeing from a war, and eventually a lady who can once again hold her head up high. There is a scene where Sarah, after so much adversity, is invited to a ball and when she looks into the mirror as one would do before leaving the house, she can only see this ugly distorted image of herself reflected back, which I thought was heartbreakingly poetic. Sarah comes across as this very courageous and strong woman, but that is only a facade. What she is instead is a woman who has been appallingly used, abused and left destitute. The mirror shows her the sins that she has been forced to commit because of her husband and because of the abandonment of her husband's family. It is ironic, when one thinks about it, that the images she sees are of the sins of man, not of women, for Sarah did not bring any of her misfortune onto herself. She is dominated by her father, disappointed, as well as discarded by her husband, forced to work in a gentleman's club, and then cruelly stalked because she tried to take some tiny fragment of control back. Which leads me onto another theme that runs through the course of this book, and that is the countability of man. It is not just Sarah who suffers because of what a man has done to her in this novel. This book is set in a time when a woman's reputation was everything and once lost, was lost forever. For a man, as long as they paid their debts, their reputation was not at all slighted by having mistresses or keeping company with whores. The whores were considered despicable creatures, but not the men who used them. It was a woman's fault if she fell pregnant out of wedlock — no blame was put upon the man. This strange imbalance of morals is played out with care and diligence throughout this book.
The Woman Behind the Mirror by Jan Selbourne is a sprawling stirring story that is unputdownable. This is the kind of book one can lose themselves in.
I Highly Recommend.
Review by Mary Anne Yarde.
The Coffee Pot Book Club.
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The Woman Behind the Mirror
Jan Selbourne was born and educated in Melbourne, Australia and her love of literature and history began as soon as she learned to read and hold a pen. After graduating from a Melbourne Business College her career began in the dusty world of ledgers and accounting, working in Victoria, Queensland and the United Kingdom. On the point of retiring, she changed course to work as secretary of a large NSW historical society. Now retired Jan is enjoying her love of travelling and literature. She has two children, a stray live in cat and lives near Maitland, New South Wales