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Westerly Magazine (Australia)

A review of Mrs. Engels, Gavin McCrea, (Scribe Publications)

Most devoted readers can point to one book, typically read in adolescence, that started them on their path to serious reading. For this reader, it was Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, given to me to read by my English teacher in my second year of high school. Captivated by the perspicacity and artistry of the writing in that iconic novel, I have gravitated, since that long ago time, to similar reading experiences in more contemporary fiction. For its wit, style and voice, UK writer Gavin McCrea’s debut novel, Mrs Engels, deserves to be considered a modern classic.

McCrea’s inspired imagining of the life of Friedrich (Frederick, in the novel) Engels’ Irish working class helpmeet, Lizzie Burns, is set between the years 1870 and 1878 with the present action focusing on Lizzie and Frederick’s move to London to be closer to Frederick’s comrade and writing partner, Karl Marx. Interspersed with frequently humorous descriptions of the illiterate but determined Lizzie’s efforts to set up her household, deal with her recalcitrant maidservants and navigate her new social standing, are flashbacks to an earlier time when she and her sister, Mary, first encounter Frederick, come from Germany to oversee his father’s Manchester mill.

It is impulsive, naïve Mary with whom Frederick first falls in love and sets up house, providing a comfortable lifestyle for both her and Lizzie. Mary’s good fortune, however, is not to last. Following her sister’s untimely death, Lizzie, alone, afraid and increasingly accustomed to her new privilege, decides to stay with Frederick despite his refusal to legitimise their relationship through marriage. In truth, her choices are few.

Read on here.

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Copyright © 2016, Dana Hansen. All rights reserved.