Black Lily by Philippa Stockley
I read it as an: ARC
Length: 253 pp
Publisher: Pimpernel Press
**This review very much contains spoilers**
Black Lily is the tale of Zenobia and Lily. Zenobia was born into poverty, the daughter of an impoverished young girl who became the mistress of a shipping mogul. It is possible he was Greek or Middle Eastern but if it ever said, I missed that part. He was surprised when Zenobia was born blonde. Lily is a black woman who was brought to London from the Caribbean on a sugar and slave ship as a toy to a rich lord. She was a kept woman for a rich merchant who ended up being connected to Zenobia in a surprising way. The lives of these women continue to intertwine in intricate, often horrific, ways, and they both have to learn how to navigate society to her best advantage when her value is entirely decided by the men who control them. Lily ends up being a hidden driving force throughout Zenobia’s entire adult life in ways she never even knows. In turn, Zenobia unwittingly is a savior of sorts to Lily. Another woman, Lily’s maidservant, Agatha, is yet another link between the three women, forging deeper connections and bonds that are strong enough to keep the secrets they all hide from society and the men around them.
This novel… It was weird. It was one of those books where nothing really actually happens, only not in a good way or literary way. It was kind of a slog more than anything, but I don’t know why because I kept reading and wanting to know what happened, but was kind of bored at the same time. Like I said, weird. It started out really well, right in the middle of the Great Plague outbreak of the 1660s. Yay, plague! That is always an attention grabber for me. I love the plague. There’s definitely something wrong. From there, though, the novel jumps back and forth in time and there is no indication of when you are or anything, so it’s super confusing and hard to keep track of. It doesn’t just change off with each chapter, it is fairly random. It would have been fantastic to give some indication of what year a chapter was set in, such as giving a date with a chapter heading. The chapters also often provided shifting points of view, since it also changes from Zenobia to Lily. One chapter (or three or five) might be Zenobia’s POV, and then all of a sudden it is Lily talking. It takes a moment to figure out who is speaking because, for as different as their lives are, Lily and Zenobia have very similar voices. Their character development isn’t really all that great and they are remarkably interchangeable. This flat character development continues with the rest of the people in the book as well: Crace is entirely bad and doesn’t do anything redeeming, or not in time; Lily is the hidden guide; Agatha is the maid who will do anything for her mistress; Zenobia is the married lady who discovers she is stronger than she thought. It was all very formulaic in that regard.
However, the plot and how their lives continue intertwining with one another was all right. Like, everywhere they went, the other kept popping up in some way or another. It shows how small the world is and how much our lives connect with others’, whether we like it or not. However, all these connections happened because the men in the story were completely fucked up. Zenobia’s dad wasn’t actually her dad. He raised her as such, which was nice of him because he did care about her and he loved her mother. But he was a workaholic absentee who didn’t pay attention, and so when his own brother tried to put the moves on her, which is super squicky because he should have thought of her as his niece, her dad didn’t notice and she had to resolve the situation herself. This turns out to be a nice bit of foreshadowing because her resolution resulted in her marriage to Crace, who was a revolting man on every conceivable level. He ended up being the brother of her mother’s lover, so he actually WAS her uncle. Gross gross gross. She hated her husbanduncle because of something he had promised to do but didn’t (turned out he did do it but never told her because he was a petty, vindictive asshole, like Trump). So she and Agatha did a thing to him and now they’re happy. Some loose ends remain, but by the end of the book, I kind of didn’t care anymore. They were sufficiently tied up that it didn’t make that much difference, though one big one is still problematic for me. Perhaps the author is setting up for a sequel, but I doubt it is one I will be too keen to read.
*This is a much longer and more detailed version of a review I previously published via the Historical Novel Society.