‘If she acted like a princess, then that is what they would all see.’
Mary Willcox is found unconscious on the Bristol road, just outside of Almondsbury, in May of 1819. Following the betrayal of the man she loves, the death of her son she was travelling from London to Exeter by foot. After a brutal attack by two men on the roadside, Mary decides she will no longer be herself: she will become the Princess Caraboo, a strong, independent, fearless member of a distant royal family. Speaking in gibberish, she feigns a lack of understanding, disappearing into herself and becoming Caraboo.
Cassandra Worrall, the daughter of the residents of Knole Park, ‘the biggest and most important house in the district’, is in the local inn when Caraboo is discovered – she insists upon taking her home, as her mother studies anthropology and she is certain she will be curious about the mysterious woman that has been found.
Cassandra’s father and her brother Fred both disbelieve Caraboo instantly, certain she must be tricking them to get money, so her mother sends for famous seaman Captain Palmer and the phrenologist and electrical expert Professor Heyford. Heyford is unconvinced, but Palmer is also skilled in the art of deception: he pretends to talk to Caraboo in her own language, crafting an elaborate backstory to explain how she came to be in England.
After getting Caraboo’s identity corroborated, Fred begins to have feelings for her: she’s one of the only women who has ever seen him for who he is. But with Palmer threatening to expose Caraboo for the fraud she is, she knows she needs to get away from Knole Park as soon as she possibly can.
I had a lot of problems with this book.
I feel as though I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I hadn’t recently read ‘The Lie Tree’ by Frances Hardinge, which is set fifty years later but it feels older; it has a genuine historical air around it. Something in the narrative of this book felt modern, so I was struck with a constant sense of disconnect. It still had the same historical accuracy with rampant sexism and racism:
“[Mrs Worrall] is intelligent – for a woman. And an American”
and, my personal favourite:
“I believe that by the twenty-first century all over languages will decline into obsolescence. English will be paramount. It is a far superior language to any other. Indeed, my thesis is that other tongues are poor substitutes; merely half-based gropings towards the proper and most ideal form of communication that is the English tongue.”
but the dialogue used and the interactions between the characters didn’t have any marked differences to how people interact today. Based off of other historical novels I’ve read, it would have been a lot more discriminatory than barbed comments when someone’s back is turned, particularly towards a woman who is openly interested in the sciences.
After reading the author’s note at the end of the book, I was surprised to discover that ‘The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo’ was based off of a real story from 1817. Catherine Johnson explains that she edited some of the core facts, particularly that the Worralls never had a daughter, so she crafted Cassandra from scratch.
I can imagine that she did this to portray the attitude of society towards women in the 1800’s, but Cassandra is a caricature. Her affections flit from one boy to the next (specifically between Edmund Gresham, Fred’s best friend, and the local innkeeper’s son William) and all she really talks about is the boys and her clothing – it’s so stereotypical that it hurts. Having a mother who is interested in the sciences, you’d think that Cassandra’s character could have a bit more substance, but she’s so materialistic and fickle it’s a waste of potential.
As well as the wasted potential of Cassandra, her parents were completely overlooked as well. Mr and Mrs Worrall don’t even get given first names! He works in a bank, she’s interested in anthropology, and while that makes their relationship interesting we don’t get to see them interact at all – they even call each other Mr Worrall and Mrs Worrall. That aspect doesn’t make a lick of sense to me.
I did appreciate Fred’s character and the development that he underwent: from being a spoilt rich boy who regularly visited the strip clubs around London, he became someone who was able to forgive Caraboo for lying to his family. At the beginning of the book Fred’s character is the least palatable, but he matures by the end.
Other than the hateful characters, the story of Caraboo was interesting enough: she lies to the family, gets caught in her deception and has to convince Fred to let her leave, saving his family the embarrassment of their naivety becoming public. The plot is really pushed along because of the fear of discovery, so when we don’t see that play out it’s a little disappointing, but it makes you feel happy for Mary Willcox after all that she’s been through. She genuinely didn’t mean any harm towards the Worralls.
This would have been a four star book… if it hadn’t been for the damned epilogue. After Fred agrees she can leave she sets her thoughts to America – she’s determined to get passage on a boat and make her fortune in a new country that’s more accepting of everyone.
However, then the epilogue comes along. Caraboo is in New York, and Fred walks in to the shop where she’s working because he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about her for the last year. She thanks him for his help with the police when the story broke… Wait, what?!
Yep, everyone finds out that the Princess Caraboo was a complete fraud, and we don’t get to see how or why that news becomes public. She leaves in the middle of the night, no one around to watch her go, and her and Fred have a perfectly crafted cover story. What the hell went wrong?
Fred then shares the fact that Cassandra and Edmund have gotten married, and it made me groan and cover my face with despair. She decided she couldn’t be with Will because he focused too much on his lack of money, so she married the lothario from down the road just because he was from the same world as her. It’s just so stereotypical.
But my biggest question: how did Fred find her in America? She didn’t share with him where she was going, she hasn’t sent them letters and the telephone wasn’t invented for another fifty years so I can’t imagine she gave him an international call. This is something else that must have happened between the body of the main book and the epilogue. It feels as though the story wasn’t finished and needed a few more chapters in there – either that or for the epilogue to have been scrapped, because it leads to a lot more questions than it answers.
It feels more like a first draft than a finished product: it’s not a complete story. That, combined with the amount of errors splashed throughout the book definitely makes me think it needed another run through from the proofreader. I don’t normally factor errors in to my reviews – sometimes mistakes are made, things are missed, we’re all human – but when the chapters started with a date and a location, and the date changes from ‘May 1819’ to ‘June 1819’ when it’s still the same day, and then reverts back to May two chapters later… It’s acceptable if there’s time travel in the book, but unfortunately there’s none of that here.
Of all of the YA Book Prize nominees that I’ve read so far, ‘The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo’ has sadly been the most disappointing.