Disclosure: the author of Bear No Malice and I are friendly. Not bosom buddies because we don’t live in the same part of the country, but we’ve met and shared coffee, laughter and book talk. FYI, dear reader! Because review of Harwood’s second novel, Bear No Malice follows forthwith.
Bear No Malice shows a writer in better control of her material, assured and adept at navigating the intricacies of her narrative. Also, on a prosaic note, I loved the hero and heroine in a way I didn’t Impossible Saints. The saints proved difficult to like, but Bear No Malice‘s sinners are sympathetic, even when they’re difficult, overbearing, downright wrong, or blind to the truth of things. And Harwood manages to take melodramatic, Victorian clichés, the “fallen woman”, the do-gooder “vicar” and turn them quite nicely on their heads, surprising and delighting this reader. She even did so with secondary characters, the “cuckold,” the bored, society wife; everyone in Harwood’s Edwardian world has depth and nuance, is compelling and surprising.
Who are they? Where do they come from? How do they conduct themselves? ‘Tis a rich world Harwood builds. Canon Tom Cross is a man who works to help the less fortunate. He’s active in prison reform, the Temperance Society, and a frequent visitor to hospitals and poorhouses. A paragon, you’d think. Not so. When the novel opens, Tom is leaving his married lover, whose husband is also one of the Cathedral’s patrons. Tom is arrogant, too aware of his charm and good looks, and quick-tempered. He’s also crossed words and purposes with one too many powerful people.
Early in the novel, on his way to his rooms from his duties, Tom is kidnapped, beaten, and left for dead in the countryside. Simon and Miranda Thorne, brother and sister, in hiding in the country from Miranda’s past (a sordid, difficult, painful past) carry him to their cottage. Like her Shakespearean namesake (and Harwood’s novel is rich in literary allusion, which delighted this reader to no end), Miranda is fey and otherworldly, an artist of depth and talent, a mercurial figure, who nevertheless connects with Tom. Simon and Miranda are Tom’s Good Samaritans and his healing time spent with them sees him reevaluate his actions, resolve to live a better, more honest life. Though Miranda and Tom grow close, neither seems to find a romantic interest in the other, not at first.
After Simon marries, he, wife Gwen, and Miranda move to London where they attend services at Tom’s church. Tom and Miranda’s paths cross over and over again and their friendship and eventually strange, nascent attraction bear fruit. There are impediments to Tom and Miranda’s love, but none greater than their own sense of what they owe others, whether in memory, loyalty, or out of a sense of their own brokenness. I like that Harwood’s characters are damaged, but not angsty. Obligation and a poor sense of self-worth run through Tom and Miranda, though it often manifests as arrogance, or standoffishness. Much stems from their past, the slow revealing of which takes the better part of the novel. Without indulging in spoilers, Tom and Miranda’s obstacles are internal, but originate in people who betrayed them in some way, who should have been trustworthy, loving, and sources of safety and solace. Tom and Miranda’s road to their HEA is slow and arduous, but also true, believable, and hopeful.
While Harwood’s plot is a meandering one, it works for these characters in these circumstances. There are quite a few scenes and events that, while they move the plot forward, have too much of clanking, cranking authorial wheels turning, a little too well-placed, a little too unconvincingly coincidental. Harwood also nods to the sensational Victorian novel, with moments of gasping melodrama. These sometimes work marvelously, like Miranda’s confrontation with her villain-filled past, and sometimes not, as in the machinating sister of a boy Tom befriends.
Where Harwood’s strength lies is characterization. Tom and Miranda are wonderful constructs because they feel both of their time and yet, the reader can connect and sympathize with them. Their moral dilemmas, circumstances and more importantly responses to them place them staunchly in Edwardian England and all its mores and contradictions. Their modern traits, those aspects that make them more familiar to us as us, bring them into the light of what is awaiting their Edwardian world: the conflagration of the Great War, the dissonance of modernism. A wonderful, assured effort for Harwood’s second novel, I look forward to many more. With Miss Austen, we deem Bear No Malice evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Clarissa Harwood’s Bear No Malice is published by Pegasus Books. It was released on January 1st and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley from Pegasus Books, via Edelweiss+.