Shortlisted for the YA Book Prize 2016, this is an unusual tale of a very lost young woman. Set in 1819 near Bristol, a village is fascinated when a strange girl is found on the road. Although she wears recognisably English dress, her skin is too dark for her to be anything but foreign, at least that is what the locals surmise. She speaks a language that isn’t European and her hair is wrapped in a turban of sorts.
Cassandra Worrall is a bored and spoilt girl, daughter of a wealthy family. She dreams of escaping her governess, of marrying her brother’s handsome best friend, and excitement. By accident, she happens to be present when Caraboo is brought into the local inn, and decides to take her home where she becomes a mystery to be solved.
No one looked her way. All eyes – and more and more people were trickling in – were fixed on the small girl sitting at the long wooden table being questioned by Parson Davies. Her hair seemed to be piled up on her head, but as Cassandra got closer she saw that it was a turban – like the people in India wore in Mama’s books. Her dress was made of some kind of black stuff – not satin or silk, but a plain, dull cloth – though fashionably high waisted. It was certainly an English dress, an everyday sort of dress such as Rachel, the parson’s help, might wear on a Sunday, if she were in mourning. It was cut high at the front and very modest, and the sleeves were short and puffed. The girl’s arms were the same shade as her face, a warm coffee brown – more than the colour that resulted from outdoor work, Cassandra thought – and anyway, the manner in which the girl held herself spoke of something refined.
What is most remarkable about this novel is that it is based on a true story. Princess Caraboo was a local sensation at that time, with many newspaper articles and books written about her. The house she stays at, Knole Park, is a real place, though certain members of the household and family are pure fiction. The author’s note at the back of the novel is very informative, and I am always impressed when a writer has managed to take fact and weave a plausible fiction around it as Johnson has here.
Of course, this is very much a story about class, but it also looks very closely at the treatment of women at that time. The book begins with a horrifying rape, and Cassandra’s brother Fred is later introduced to us through one of his regular excursions to a brothel. Fred is sure that Caraboo is a liar and a confidence trickster, but despite his bravado he finds her quiet company a comfort. There is also an element of danger for Caraboo, not only in the truth of her story being discovered but in the physical peril of being seen as a commodity by certain of the men who inveigle themselves into the Worrall’s company.
Whether you usually read YA or not, this book shouldn’t be written off just because its target audience is younger. This is a novel that isn’t scared to confront abuse, racial attitudes and misogyny head on, and is well worth a read.