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Sara Collins.

Wilfred Bignal-Ebanks/Handout

  • The Confessions of Frannie Langton
  • Author: Sara Collins
  • Genre: Historical fiction
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • Pages: 384

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is, at barest plot synopsis, the story of a maid accused of the bloody, brutal murders of her master and mistress. So far, so Alias Grace, right?

And while Sara Collins’s debut novel does bear a passing resemblance to that CanLit stalwart – most notably a narrator with a magnetic, mercurial pull on your emotion and attention and an Atwood-ian bite to its social commentary – this is a book that owes far more to the literature of its early-19th century setting.

It’s less about inspiration, however, and more interrogation: Collins declares her intent to flip these texts on their heads up front, including the names of the books and genres she’s here to rethink within the text. It’s both a treasure hunt and a treasure map, full of Easter eggs for those who might care, and offering subtle hints as to how it all might end for those with eyes to see. (Not a connoisseur of literature circa 1826? Fear not: This is an absorbing, utterly searing read whether you know your De Quincey from your Walter Scott.)

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There are early, albeit sly, nods to Voltaire’s Candide. But where that young man was indoctrinated and subsequently disillusioned by a Professor Pangloss, when we first meet our protagonist Frances, she is a child. Enslaved on a Jamaican plantation called Paradise, she is exceptional from the start, learning to read and write via a perverted mentorship with her owner, a man it won’t take you long to guess is actually her father. There are heavy overtones of Frankenstein in the father’s scientific inquiries into race and the ghastly, unthinkable experiments in which he makes her a participant.

Shades of The Modern Prometheus are also found in Frances’s own later reflections on what truly maketh a monster, although Collins does a masterful job of advancing that conversation beyond the expected English Lit 101 essay territory. The proto-feminist thinking of Mary Shelley’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, is fertile territory, too. Frances brushes up, and sometimes becomes entangled in, the lives of other women struggling for equality in this novel. All of the female characters are alike, in some ways at least, in their powerlessness, be they prostitute, slave or the aristocratic woman with whom Frances eventually finds a complicated passion.

Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe’s bildungsroman of a woman who spends significant time in Newgate prison, the same place we first meet Frances, is an urtext of sorts, referenced explicitly over and over – the one book Frances herself owns. (Although, and this is no spoiler, Collins ends Frances’s story rather differently than the reformed, redeemed Moll’s).

And while the horrors that take place make Horace Walpole’s 18th century The Castle of Otranto look like a children’s book (mostly because they’re about the darkness within humans, rather than silly supernatural bumps in the night), Collins also finds space to play a little in the realm of the Gothic novel, particularly when it comes to her cliffhanger chapter endings. For good measure, it’s also a novel “doused with the fume of poppies," the opium that plagued and inspired Keats et al. playing a pivotal role in how some of the most important events of this page-turner play out – not least when it comes to Frances’s recollections of the night of the murder.

And about that murder: While it gets top billing as a selling point for this book – because, much like the rowdy crowds who sit in the public gallery at Frances’s trial, we still can’t resist a grisly tale of gore, particularly when rich people are the victims – it’s hardly the focus of the tale that Collins spins with tempered poetry. Written as a “confession” to her lawyer, who she’s met only once, and who asked her to give him something to work with so he can get her free, this volume is not really about Frances explaining her innocence or really justifying anything at all.

As a character, she is a riddle, but not in the slippery, untrustworthy way that, say, Margaret Atwood’s Grace is. Instead, she is complex, as broken as she is strong, clear-eyed in her own complicity as she is unembarrassed about placing blame where it is due for the many traumas she survives. Frances is as layered in her personhood as Collins’s writing is saturated in intelligent insights into what might seem a familiar tale. Which is to say: very.

So no, this is not a murder mystery, although we do, at the very end, find out how George and Margeurite Benham really did die, or at least Frances’s account of the events. What it is, instead, is a beautifully crafted piece of historical fiction, one that fulfills all the best promise of that genre, in that it renders the past so vividly that it feels as urgent as the present.

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More than that, Collins, without banging you over the head with it, clearly draws parallels between the injustices and hypocrisies of Frances’s world with those of our own. As immersive as The Confessions of Frannie Langton is, its real power is in how it will make you want to engage with your own reality differently. Oh, and it will definitely make you revisit your English Literature 101 syllabus with fresh eyes.

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