Alex Preston’s fourth novel is an intelligent historical fiction reflecting modern sensibilities concerning gender and race, though the setting is 18th-century Kent. Goody, the protagonist, is as comfortable wearing men’s attire as she is in a dress; her foster brother, Francis, has escaped slavery. “Winchelsea’s first dark-skinned resident”, he is largely welcomed by the community as a helper in the smuggling operations that bring both riches and terrors. Goody and Francis must confront the terrible wrongs done to their foster father and mother by a vicious gang of smugglers.
Preston bases his narrative on historical fact: Arthur Gray, a real-life leader of the Hawkhurst Gang, is rendered here in beautifully sinister terms. He wears gorgeous clothes and holds orgies in his grand house; his followers, who have names like Poison, terrorise the villages, raping, murdering and pillaging unchecked. Fear is woven into the very fabric of the buildings, locked and shuttered at the sight of any strange rider.
Goody decides to take her revenge. Her foster father, however, was a Jacobite in close contact with Bonnie Prince Charlie, and first she must take part in the rebellion, under the name William Stuart. The horrors of the battle of Culloden are rendered vividly and excitingly. When Goody/William returns, she finds her home under siege, and faces up to her real father, a man as murderous as she has become; and to a family whom she must accept, and who must accept her as she is.
Preston is also a nature writer, and his prose is keenly alive to the highways and holloways of Kent, while the atmosphere is salt-tanged and ale-tinged. There is strong visual imagery tending towards the filmic: a pregnant Goody seeking her foster brother in the county taverns is particularly poignant. Battles are thrilling; there are last-minute escapes, and the final standoff between the doughty Kentish folk and the Hawkhurst Gang will have you on the edge of your seat. Winchelsea is a well-wrought, satisfyingly solid romp that, at the same time, asks us to consider how deeply violence has scarred our past, and the ways in which society’s structures – small and large – can be reformed.