Carol Birch

New South Wales, 1817. Margaret Catchpole, a Suffolk woman, is stranded at a settler’s homestead as the floodwater draws in, and she finds herself facing death – as she has several times before.

She looks back over her life – the complex and stormy partnership with Will Laud, a ‘hell-born-babe’, that led her into the world of smuggling and in to a double life. After Will is forced to flee the country, Margaret is taken on as a nursemaid by the wealthy Cobbold family, but a crime against them means she is tried and sentenced to hang.

She avoids death but when an elaborate gaol escape fails, Will is shot dead and Margaret captured. Sentenced once more to hang, she looks death full in the face. But she doesn’t die. Her sentence is transmuted to transportation for life to Australia.

The novel explores a deeply divided society. Ironically, by reaching the lowest depths and being cast out by the society which spawned her, Margaret finds her true role as an independent pioneer in a young colony.

(Virago £14.99)