It’s 1817 and a young woman is witnessed throwing a child into the River Clyde from the Old Bridge in Glasgow, the authorities are told. Based on a real case, this is a powerful piece of historical fiction from Sarah Smith and an interesting look into the 19th Century attitude to disability, and specifically deafness. The authorities are unable to communicate with their prisoner and as nothing is found at the river, Jean is taken to the Edinburgh Tolbooth in the hope of getting the truth. The High Court asks Robert Kinniburgh if he will communicate with their silent prisoner, to work out whether Jean is deaf or even fit for trial. Robert teaches at the Deaf & Dumb Institution and might be able to form a way of interpreting for the authorities. Jean only has two choices if a court finds her guilty, neither of which are desirable; death by hanging or imprisonment in an insane asylum. As Robert and Jean manage to construct a simple way of communicating, he starts to gains her trust, Jean starts to confides in her interpreter, imparting the truth. As Robert treads a fine line between interpreter and investigator, he becomes absolutely determined to clear her name before it is too late.
The novel’s basis in Scottish legal history means that Smith has researched her period deeply, wanting to tell her tale sensitively and with respect for these real-life characters. It is a perfect mix of fact, atmospheric setting, strong characters and an understanding of what life was like for someone with a disability in the early 19th Century. Kinniburgh has the difficult task of unravelling Jean’s story, immersing himself in the legal machinery of the Edinburgh court, and retracing Jean’s life up till that moment on the bridge. He is a teacher, not a lawyer, so he really has his work cut out. He is our eyes and ears in the story, following Jean’s life in the poverty stricken slums of Glasgow, experiencing her difficulties and finding out what happened in the final days before she came to be alone on the Old Bridge with her baby. He is a very humane main character, full of intelligence and compassion for others. Yet it us Jean Campbell who really made her way into my head and heart.
Obviously, the real Jean Campbell isn’t well known, but it felt like Smith really got under the skin of this girl. The details of her existence are brought vividly to life and Smith shows us that she was strong and full of dignity despite being so disenfranchised. Jean has gone through traumatic experiences, badly used by unscrupulous people only too happy to take advantage. Campbell’s deafness is central pillar of this book, it’s the reason for her poverty, the ordeals she has been subjected to and possibly the court case itself. How far were police officers influenced by her inability to speak. Just as there are now, there were prejudices and assumptions made about the Deaf community at the time, and we get some insight into how sign language evolved when it becomes the key by which Kinniburgh begins to earn Jean’s trust and unlock her story. I love that her story is reaching so many people through this novel.
I loved the settings, particularly the incredibly atmospheric opening which really set the scene for the rest of the novel. Smith’s period locations took me on a journey through time across two beautiful Scottish cities. The most vivid being Edinburgh’s dank and grimy Tolbooth prison which evoked claustrophobia for me. Equally vivid are Kinniburgh’s visits to the filthy poverty of Jean’s Glasgow home. I think that lovers of historical fiction will really enjoy this but I’d like to see it read by a wider audience, considering it’s message is sadly still relevant. We cannot judge fellow human beings until we have understood what has brought them to that point. We also need to make more effort to communicate with those who have a disability. It seems that we can revere them as Paralympians or military heroes, but many don’t pass the time of day with real people with disabilities in their daily life. Smith highlights this by taking us to this earlier time where, for those who were silenced, their disability could mean paying a very high price indeed. Jean could see this discrepancy and the way she was underestimated every day of her life:
‘She was aware of much more than people gave her credit for. Always had been…Not once did any hearing person treat her like she was the same as them.’
Published by Two Roads 3rd Feb 2022.