Winner of the 2001 Whitbread Award, Coram Boy relates the intertwining stories of Meshak Gardiner and Alexander Ashbrook, two young men of different abilities and backgrounds who nonetheless find their fate inextricably linked. Meshak, the mentally handicapped son of Otis Gardiner, helps his father dispose of unwanted children; generally infants whose mothers think that Mr. Gardiner will transport them to Coram Hospital, a newly-created facility to care for abandoned children. Able to convince the distraught mothers that their newborns will be well-cared for in exchange for a small fee, Mr. Gardiner later hands the infants over to Meshak, who then buries the children in the woods. Years of burying infants and selling older ones into slavery have made Mr. Gardiner rich, but one day he is accused of blackmailing the wealthy mothers of these children. Everyone believes that he was hanged for his crimes and that his son, Meshak, quietly slipped away. Not until years later do people realize what happened to the Gardiners and all of the abandoned children.
Historical fiction is my favourite genre. I’ve always been fascinated with history, and so reading stories that allow me to live the lives based upon past events excites me so much. I’m currently writing a historical fiction novel myself, and for the setting, I’ve been inspired by the Forest of Dean, my home, and its surrounding areas. Coram Boy takes place in Gloucester as well as London, so it was nice to read a book of this genre that’s set in the same county as mine. I could see how Jamila Gavin captured two 18th century cities, both of which were clearly researched in meticulous detail, in their dirtiest light, exploring the lives of the lower classes instead of just focusing on the more privileged.
One of the things that stood out for me was the character of Meshak. He is described as a ‘simpleton’ and is treated poorly throughout the novel, particularly by his father. He has a strong moral compass, even though there are times when it becomes a bit warped (trying to keep Aaron from his parents to protect his ‘angel’s’ son, for example). He is plagued by the voices of the children that he buries, feeling guilty over the fact that he didn’t save them. Gavin capture this with chilling sentences like ‘He feels the need to be dead.’ For a boy as young as Meshak to think something like this is just heartbreaking.
While the story is told through an omniscient narrator, the majority of the events are experienced through the children’s perspective, which, in a way, makes some of the horrific events seem worse. When Meshak sees black slaves, for example. ‘It was human, wasn’t it? He licked his finger and smoothed it over the baby’s skin to see if the black would come off.’ The way that this baby is alienated because of his skin colour is shocking, and the way that Meshak innocently rubs him with his finger to see if the colour would come off shows the severity of the racism during this period.
Racism is also explored through Toby, a black orphan and Aaron’s best friend. Toby’s treatment at Mr. Gaddarn’s party is exceptionally saddening, as ‘the ladies adored him, and loved to bounce him on their knees, feed him sweets, and push their fingers under his turban to feel his extraordinarily crinkly hair.’ I never knew that black children were hired to be poked and prodded simply for entertainment during this time period, and, to say the least, it was appalling.
The characters of Alex and Thomas are two of my favourites in this novel. They both come from different worlds and yet are united through their love of music. I felt so sorry for Alex, as his father forbids him to follow his passion. I have to say though; there were times when I forgot Alex’s age and thought him as older, so the times when I was reminded of his age completely changed my image of him.
I also felt this way with Melissa, who, at the start of the book, is fourteen years old. She acts her age at the beginning, from joining in with her sibling’s games and experiencing her first period, but then also sleeps with Alex and gets pregnant. I could not imagine characters as naive as these having sex. Also, the fact that Melissa was able to conceal her entire pregnancy and birth is hard to believe tbh. There were moments when her youth was highlighted, such as when she thought she could raise her child at home without her parents noticing, not realising how noisy a baby could be, her focus on knitting cute little clothes for it. Not to mention her reaction to her growing ‘roundness’ and her disbelief when her maid informed her of her pregnancy. If anything, moments like this made it so much harder for me to believe this subplot.
I enjoyed Coram Boy, mainly because of the amount of history intertwined in this novel. Gavin covers a range of diverse perspectives when it comes to 18th century London, allowing the reader to explore this world in so many different ways. It’s a dark book that features some appalling attitudes amongst the characters, and Gavin conveys their beliefs in such a gripping way that you can’t help but feel shocked at some of the events. Aside from the issues regarding ages, I think this novel is beautifully written and an incredible read for both adults and children.