….aaaaannnndddd it’s back to indie presses again!! Today’s book and publisher is one I was really keen to get to during #ReadIndies month but of course ran out of time. The publisher is Manderley Press, a relatively new outfit on the block and named of course for the house in Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”. They specialise in beautifully produced hardback editions of classics, and so far have issued works by Robert Louis Stevenson (so tempting…), Jerrard Tickell, Rosemary Sutcliffe and Katherine Cecil Thurston. It’s the latter whose book “The Fly on the Wheel” features today, and happily enough it also fits with this month’s #readingirelandmonth23 event, hosted by Cathy at 746Books! “Fly..” has also been issued as a Virago Modern Classic, but I don’t have that edition, so was very happy to be sent a copy of this beautiful book for review – thank you!

Thurston, born in 1874 as Kathleen Annie Josephine Madden, lived a brief and interesting life, dying at the age of 37 from a seizure; according to her Wikipedia entry, she was best-known for writing thrillers (with one of her titles having been filmed four times). “Fly..”, her second to last novel, has been described by Megan Nolan (who provides the foreword to this edition) as a ‘lost Irish classic’, and it’s certainly very different from any kind of thriller (though it *does* build to an exciting climax!)

“Fly…” was published in 1908 and is set in Waterford, a sea port in south-east Ireland. This is a world of strong Catholic religion, strict propriety and a rigid social structure. As the story opens we meet Stephen Carey; the eldest of a family from fairly lowly background, he’s worked his way up in the world to become a respected local lawyer, married and with children. As well as raising his own, he also took on supervision of the upbringing of his sibilings, following his late father’s wishes to ensure they trod the paths proscribed for them. However, a problem is looming in the form of young Frank, who’s gone off to Paris to study art. Here, he’s met the beautiful but complex Isobel Costello, a young woman with exotic heritage who has connections with Waterford. Head over heels, Frank has become engaged, which infuriates his elder brother. So when Isobel arrives back in Waterford with her maiden aunt, Stephen decides to take matters into his own hands and ensure the unsuitable engagement is broken off.

However, it was never going to be as simple as that… Stephen is a controlled man, subduing his passions and married to Daisy as this was considered to be a suitable match. Marriage is a contract, almost a business in this kind of society, and Stephen is a patriarch with his wife basically there to fulfil a function – love does not enter into the equation. However, face him with someone who is ‘other’, who doesn’t fit into Waterford’s constrained social set-up, and sparks will fly. Stephen and Isobel are inevitably attracted, and passion breaks loose (though, of course, never in a graphic way!); but will love conquer all, or is society and religion just too much for them?

More about the plot I shall not say, but I will say that this is a beautifully written and very powerful story. Thurston writes elegantly, and captures quite brilliantly Waterford and its denizens and its layers of society. The social strata is vital to the characters’ existence, and none of them dare step beyond its bounds for fear of being ostracized. But Isobel is an outsider, whether from her heritage or upbringing, and she cannot conceive of not following her desires. This puts her on a collision course with everyone and everything around her and, as my Offspring used to say, “end well it will not…”.

As well as painting a vivid picture of Waterford’s people, Thurston also captures the local landscape very evocatively; the countryside around the place comes alive and the book really does transport you back in time and in place. I imagine modern Waterford is not much like the one in the book, but it was lovely to be able to visit it vicariously. There’s an excellent cast of supporting characters, from Daisy’s sister Mary to local families the Powers and the Burkes, and all add to the richness of the setting and its residents.

“The Fly on the Wheel” (which takes its title from one of Aesop’s Fables) really is a book which deserves more attention, and to stand alongside books like “Anna Karenina”, “Madame Bovary” and “Wuthering Heights”, with protagonists whose love is threatened by society and its mores. And it perhaps brings in an extra element which is not so strong in the books I’ve mentioned, which is that of religion. Inevitably, in such a Catholic society, the local Priest is heavily involved in all matters of life; and here it is Father James who is well aware of what is developing between Stephen and Isobel, and sets out to stop her free spirit from destroying the lives of others. Whether you think he’s right to do this or not will depend on your own beliefs and viewpoint, but he certainly wields a lot of power over those in his parish…

So “Fly…” was a fascinating and absorbing read and deserving of its re-publication in such a beautiful edition. Isobel Costello, in particular, is an unforgettable character, wild and free and refusing to conform to what’s expected of her, regardless of the consequences. Thurston’s portrait of the Ireland of the period is vivid and quite an eye-opener, and the book is a real page-turner which leaves you gripped to the end. I’m so glad Manderley Press have chosen to re-issue it, and hope it gets the attention it deserves – highly recommended from here! 😀