Ros Barber’s first novel, The Marlowe Papers, was a miraculous oddity – a 400-page blank-verse sequence that built artfully into an elaborate conspiracy narrative. Purporting to reveal the long-suppressed truth about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays (the faked death of Christopher Marlowe; a life spent in secret but prolific exile; the sly assumption of another man’s name), its numerous pleasures lay as much in the mischievous ingenuity of its plotting as in the flamboyance of its form. A marriage of scholarly wit and technical expertise, it also, unexpectedly, proved to be thoroughly compelling. On its publication, I wrote in these pages, with a slightly clumsy enthusiasm, that the work ‘thunders along like an episode of some Elizabethan 24’.
Devotion, Barber’s second book, feels in almost every way like a reaction against her debut. Near-contemporary rather than knowingly antique, it privileges a mode of quiet realism, lingeringly relating a considerably more conventional narrative than its predecessor. The story