Book Review: The Conviction of Cora Burns
Reviewed by Jaylynn Korrell
A dark Victorian novel about the complexities and motives of a violent young woman, sure to leave you grasping for answers.
When Cora Burns is released from prison, her situation seems as bleak as she is. She has no family (that she’s met, at least) and no friends to run to, but when she starts a new job as a live-in maid, she’s at least got some personal new mysteries to explore.
“The Borough Lunatic Asylum was the nearest she’d ever got to a home. Sometimes, when they’d all been at dinner in the servants’ hall and the outdoor men had come in with gossip and jokes, she’d thought that they might almost be a family.”
Shortly after Cora starts her new job, a familiar-looking man at the residence asks to take her picture. Desperate to keep her sheisty past a secret, she goes snooping around and discovers that not only is he the same photographer from the prison she just came from, but he also has a collection of coins that closely resemble the one she wears around her neck. Since the coin necklace is one of the only things she has to connect her to her mother, this discovery encourages Cora to break the house rules and go sneaking into places that she doesn’t belong, finding herself face-to-face with danger.
After finishing Cora Burns, I couldn’t help but feel impressed at author Carolyn Kirby’s ability to make me empathize with such a mad individual. Because Cora has lived virtually her whole life imprisoned, she returns to society in a feral and truly enthralling state to follow. As I learned more and more about her past through flashbacks, I found myself making excuses for her present actions. She embodies the grit needed to get to the bottom of what she needs to: Who and where is her mother? What ever happened to her best childhood friend? Cora explores these mysteries at all costs, searching for answers and in the process, for her own identity.
“Although, at the very last minute, when it was too late to save herself, would she change her mind? Maybe she’d remember, just as the first iron horseshoe touched her hair, how good it had felt to wear a cashmere walking-dress, or to bite into a veal pudding or to have Jimmy’s sweating limbs wrapped around hers. With her last breath she might cry out: No! It’s too soon for everything to be gone!”
Carolyn Kirby lays the foundation of this novel brick by brick, building to conclusions that I suspected from the start and to some that were nowhere near what I was expecting. Intertwining the past and present gives the reader an abundance of information that allows us to feel certain that we have all the facts we need to piece it all together, even if sometimes they’re overloaded with scientific jargon.
In the end, I had a pleasant time reading The Conviction of Cora Burns. Cora proves to be an inspiring protagonist, stopping at nothing to discover her own truths and to build a better future despite her wild and questionable past.