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The Prologue to A Glimpse at Happiness is easily the most attention-grabbing opening I’ve ever encountered in a romantic novel. I won’t ruin the impact of it by revealing what happens except to say that in the appalling Ma Tugman – running her East London criminal empire from her squalid dockland pub – Jean Fullerton has created an absolutely extraordinary character who dominates the entire book.
The story opens in 1844 and actually centres on Josie O’Casey, who has just returned to London after twelve years in America. On her return, she discovers that her first and only love Patrick Nolan – whom she had long believed to be dead – is not only alive and well, but (of course – otherwise there’d be no story …!) married.
If the course of true love never did run smooth, this one traverses the Himalayas – by way of Ma Tugman. The story cracks along at a terrific pace and it isn’t always obvious where it’s going, which adds a nice frisson to proceedings. The characterization throughout is excellent and even the minor characters are deftly drawn. I can offer no higher praise than to say that I wanted to take the odious Mrs Munroe to one side and slap her silly.
It’s no surprise at all to learn that Jean Fullerton is a native Londoner with a lively and detailed knowledge of her city’s history, because her evocation of the Victorian docklands is so vivid you can see, hear and almost smell them. This is no prettified version of bygone London and she pulls no punches in her descriptions of the fight for a decent life that confronted most people every day.
If you like your romantic fiction light and fluffy, then A Glimpse at Happiness is probably not for you – but if you enjoy a bit of meat on the bones of your romances, then it comes highly recommended.
Orion. 2009. ISBN: 978-1409113201. 320pp.