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The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby

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The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby

The Conviction of Cora Burns take 09.jpg
The Conviction of Cora Burns take 09.jpg

The Conviction of Cora Burns by Carolyn Kirby


Publication Date: March 19, 2019
Paperback: 344 pages
ISBN: 978-1-945814-84-6

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1880s Birmingham, England: A troubled young woman searches for her lost sister and the truth behind a grisly crime in this Victorian thriller in the style of The Essex Serpent and See What I Have Done.

"Kirby writes with skill and gusto." --The Times

Cora Burns has always struggled to control the violence inside of her. Does this temperament come from the mother she never knew, a convict who gave birth to her in jail? Or is Cora a product of her harsh upbringing in the workhouse, where her only light was a girl named Alice Salt, so like Cora that they were almost sisters.

Just released from Birmingham Gaol, Cora sets out to find Alice. But her memories of Alice are hazy, entangled with the memories of a terrible crime: the murder of a little boy in the workhouse. Her sole clue is a bronze medal cut in half, engraved with the word “SALT.”

Cora finds work as a servant in the home of Thomas Jerwood, a gentleman-scientist obsessed with the study of hereditary criminality. Here Cora befriends a young girl, Violet, who seems to be the subject of a living experiment into upbringing and character. But are there two identical girls called Violet? And is Jerwood also secretly studying Cora? As the secrets of her past unravel, Cora must decide if her own scarred nature is an unalterable product of biology or if she has the strength to change.

With the power and intrigue of Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions and Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done, Carolyn Kirby’s debut novel delves into Victorian London’s dark underbelly and the question of where we first learn violence: from our scars or from our hearts.


“A gothic feel, with a strong heroine uncovering secrets from her past...A gripping story, a haunting and original debut and full of period detail. Cora is a sympathetic and feisty character.”
NB Magazine

“[A] multilayered narrative of grim coincidence, origin mysteries, and severed pairs...the language is atmospheric and perfectly pitched, and the dialogue is spare and evocative. An ambitious effort that...will keep readers riveted.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Kirby is at her best in depicting Birmingham’s mean streets and in conveying Cora’s inner struggles.”
Publishers Weekly

“A dark Victorian novel about the complexities and motives of a violent young woman, sure to leave you grasping for answers...Carolyn Kirby lays the foundation of this novel brick by brick, building to conclusions that I suspected from the start and to some that were nowhere near what I was expecting....Cora proves to be an inspiring protagonist, stopping at nothing to discover her own truths and to build a better future despite her wild and questionable past.”
Independent Book Review

“Kirby’s superb psychological thriller just about garrotes you in suspense. Is violence a product of nature or nurture? Can we shape who we are, and once shaped, can we ever change? Cora's the daughter of a convict, but the harsh 1865 London streets she grows up in, full of workhouses and murder and a sinister secret experiment offer answers to that question that you never see coming. Honestly, I kept all the lights on through this provocative, smart debut.”
—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You

The Conviction of Cora Burns is an astonishing debut novelsumptuous in detail, original in structure, and, page by page, utterly compelling. Carolyn Kirby is a born storytellera Charles Dickens for the 21st centuryand her evocation of of the sources of evil, whether in us or in society, as shrewd and telling as her understanding of the mystery and depths of the human heart.”
—Jay Neugeboren, author of Imagining Robert and The Stolen Jew

“Carolyn Kirby’s unforgettable debut is a painstaking, kaleidoscopic, deeply unsettling, deeply thrilling, expansive, provocatively masterful novel that will transport you to London of the roaring Victorian 1880s and poke and prod your mind and heart with the branding iron that sears every sentence from beginning to unspeakable end.”
—Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction

“With a sharp historical eye to the class conflicts, workhouse horrors, and sexual mores of Victorian England, Carolyn Kirby deftly renders the precarious lives of unmarried working-class mothers and the far-reaching consequences of moral choices driven by desperation. A poignant reflection on the possibility of personal redemption and the potential, within each person and society, to recognize and cherish human dignity and shed the injustices of the past.”
—Alice Hatcher, author of The Wonder That Was Ours

"In the Conviction of Cora Burns, Carolyn Kirby tells a story reminiscent of the amazing Australian film Heavenly Creatures, a story that explores the power of friendship between two young girls who have been marginalized by society. When Cora's friend Alice Salt challenges their friendship by suggesting a moral compromise, Kirby negotiates this emotional challenge masterfully, creating a life-long bond between the two women."

—Russell Rowland, author of Arbuckle

'Downton Abbey meets Elizabeth Gaskell'

—GJ Minett, author of Lie In Wait, The Hidden Legacy and Anything For Her

'A gripping historical thriller with a compelling protagonist. I loved the period detail and can't wait to read more from Carolyn Kirby'

—Sarah Ward, author of the DC Childs novels

'Unique and utterly engrossing'

—Emily Elgar, author of If You Knew Her

'An intriguing story of loss, doubleness, and sinister scientific experiment. Carolyn Kirby conjures up the nineteenth-century in a way that will surely satisfy all devotees of ëVic-lití'

—Gaynor Arnold, author of The Girl In the Blue Dress

"The novel probes some of Victoriana’s darkest corners. Kirby uses the ties between early scientific and medical research, prisons, lunatic asylums, and workhouses to humanize the vulnerability of the poor, especially women and children. ... The Conviction of Cora Burns makes plain the frightening ease by which Victorian practices lay bare our own."

—Foreword Reviews

"In a startlingly vibrant debut, Carolyn Kirby paints a picture of the cruelty of 19th century poverty in The Conviction of Cora Burns so vividly youíd think she’d lived it. The unwitting subject of a decades-long deception, Cora Burns is a complicated, fiery protagonist whose intelligence propels her forward even as her trauma threatens to drown her. Drawing on British post-Industrial Revolution excitement for new technology and scientific theory, this book lures Cora to examine a past narrative in which she is victim, villain and investigator. As Cora seeks the facts of her parentage, she embodies the truth that while both nature and nurture determine who we are, we alone determine who weíll become."

—Allison Amend, author of Enchanted Islands

“The Conviction of Cora Burns is a striking debut. Rich in gothic darkness and period detail, the brutality of Victorian Britain is exquisitely drawn. A beautifully-written story which enveloped me from first page to last.”

—Amanda Jennings, author of Cliff House and In Her Wake

“An assured debut - atmospheric, dark and emotive. The story is sure to stay with readers long after turning the final page.”

—Sam Carrington

“Carolyn Kirby creates an unforgettable character in the spirited and fascinating Cora Burns. The voice transports us to the world of late nineteenth century Birmingham and we are drawn into Cora's dark mystery from the first page. A truly haunting and original debut”

—Jacqui Lofthouse, author of Bluethroat Morning and The Modigliani Girl

"[A] multilayered narrative of grim coincidence, origin mysteries, and severed pairs...the language is atmospheric and perfectly pitched, and the dialogue is spare and evocative. An ambitious effort that...will keep readers riveted."

—Kirkus Reviews

"A gothic feel, with a strong heroine uncovering secrets from her past...A gripping story, a haunting and original debut and full of period detail. Cora is a sympathetic and feisty character."

—NB Magazine

"Even at its darkest, it is beautifully written...the complex Cora makes a flawed but affecting heroine. A great historical novel with bite."

—Sunday Mirror

"Carolyn Kirby brings out the smugness, prejudice, and self-righteous cruelty of [Victorian England] more dramatically and honestly than any writers from the Victorian Age would likely have been capable of delineating, even the more iconoclastic of them. Particularly, she shows the almost unbelievably grim plight of women, especially lower class women at that time. The result is a compelling mystery and a powerful novel."

—Pop Culture Association's Mystery & Detective Reading List

"Through confident and atmospheric writing and with an accurate, faithful depiction of the era, she focuses on themes that are always relevant and highlights the endless fascination to unlock the depths of human nature. ... we are guided by a young woman who is one of the most gifted characters Iíve seen in recent Literature. ... A truly exciting debut."

—The Opinionated Reader

"This might be an historical crime novel, set below stairs in Victorian England, but itís about a far from cosy crime as you can imagine. This is a gritty, character-driven thriller with a deeply conflicted yet credible protagonist."

—Murder Mayhem and More

"A harrowing meditation on morality through the lens of Victorian society and its often skewed ideas...Kirby handles all this with a steely grace, never flinching away from the horrors of the world sheís depicting, even as she makes sure to note the kindness and decency that did flourish wherever it was able. And where itís not, she dives deep into the psyche to show how women might cope, looking for strength in each other and in themselves. Her exploration of the bonds of female friendship and sisterhood, especially, struck a deep chord of memory in me. This is an astonishing debut novel, filled with twists and psychological insights that pit those age-old rivals, nature and nurture, in a battle for one young womanís soul."

—Criminal Element

"With its complex anti-heroine and its dark, twisting plot, The Conviction of Cora Burns is haunted by transgenerational trauma, twins and doubles and the painful legacies of maternal sacrifice. All at once, it's a historical thriller, a kind of ghost story and a sneakily political treatise on the need for a more equitable society....Despite her criminal past and violent impulses, readers will root for scrappy, complicated Cora, whose grit and fierce resilience are more inherent than her supposed "badness." Through her, Kirby argues for the recognition of how injustice and inequality can warp a person's morality, and for the inherent potential, within us all, for change and redemption."

—Shelf Awareness

"A wholly original and highly compelling novel that delves into the psyche of a young woman and explores an early version of the nature-versus-nurture debate...This brilliant book is a masterful piece of literature that will pull you in from the very beginning...This novel would be an ideal book club choice."

—Historical Novel Society


Originally from the northeast of England, CAROLYN KIRBY studied history at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, before working in public housing and then as a teacher of English as a foreign language. Her novel The Conviction of Cora Burns, begun in 2013 during a writing course at Faber Academy in London, won the inaugural Bluepencilagency Award and was a runner-up for the DGA First Novel Prize and the Mslexia Novel Competition. Carolyn has two grown daughters and lives with her husband in rural Oxfordshire.