Winchelsea by Alex Preston - review by Jude Cook

Jude Cook

The Smuggler’s Tale



Canongate 352pp £14.99

Alex Preston’s fourth novel is a rip-roaring slice of historical fiction set during the 1740s in the notorious smugglers’ town of Winchelsea on England’s south coast. Based on the actual character of Goody Brown, ‘a tall, square-shouldered child with great swags of hair the colour of sea spume’, Preston’s heroine is an orphan saved from drowning who eventually becomes a smuggler herself after her adoptive father is murdered by the Mayfield Gang. Goody’s tale is presented, in the best tradition of 18th-century literature, as a found document, a letter addressed to the reader, a device that allows her voice to flow on the page, vivifying the book’s cast of rapscallions and ‘unspeakable-looking men’, who have names such as Nasty Face and Old Joll.

When Goody joins the rival Hawkhurst Gang to avenge her father’s death, she is drawn into acts of derring-do and murder that make her question her morals. She becomes ‘self-mistrusting and often wicked’. It’s only when she discovers the truth about the identity of her real father that she joins forces with her mixed-race adopted brother to help the Jacobite cause, meeting the Young Pretender himself in France. She also falls for another woman in

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