This sat on my wishlist for a long time before I picked it up, having caught my eye when it first came out. It's an impressive debut novel and an uncomfortable read: I realised half-way through that I wasn't in the mood for watching the inevitable car crash, but respected the writing too much to put it down.
In an alternate present, England turned to God after the war and the fierce resurgence of Christianity was met by flaming resistance from the Secular Movement. Churches burned and those with the wrong papers were beaten in the streets, until a newly-elected religious government had the confidence to banish the dissenting minority to the Island.
30 years later, the Island depends on English charity to survive. Sarah Wicks slips aboard the second-last boat of the year in search of her mother, who vanished during a second purge 10 years ago and who she has only lately discovered did not, in fact, run off with a man from York. Eliza Michalka is Island-born, working in the brothel to earn her keep after her mother's death left her with nothing, dreams of a better, easier life in England. And Nathaniel Malraux, a shaven-headed youth who fancies himself keeper of the Island's purity, leads his gang of Malades to 'crab' anyone suspected of English or Godly sentiments. When their stories converge, it can't end well.
It's the little details that stand out. The novel is weakest in the heavily-borrowed brush strokes used to paint the context of sectarian division and fascist control in the 50s and 70s. It has its strength in the vignettes of the Islanders such as Mrs Page's secular funeral, the secret words Eliza writes beneath her fringe each morning, and the rather literary love letters Nathaniel's dead father wrote to his wife.
As events inevitably build, Wood walks a fine line, never straying into outright brutality. She is interested in the inner landscapes rather than the outer acts as she paints the early aggressions of a gang who are acquiring a taste for violence. Their fire contrasts with the apathy and loneliness of their parents' generation, many of whom quietly regret the acts that had them banished.
The core of the plot is far from original, but the well-drawn setting and accomplished character work make it better than perhaps it should be. While the loose ending left me somewhat dissatisfied (I wanted closure for Nathaniel), this remains worth a look. Just make sure you're in a resilient mood when you pick it up.