Cornwall LivingIssue #75
A gothic tale
We meet Noel O’Reilly, author of debut novel, Wrecker.
Periodically throughout the year, we’ll receive the occasional review copy of a novel set in Cornwall. But in recent months, it’s fair to say we’ve been inundated with a flood of paperbacks, all with Cornwall at their centre. It seems that in the literary world, Cornwall is well and truly hot property right now! Of course, a lot of this may have to do with the ‘Poldark effect’. As a writer for The Guardian commented, “I’d lay a bet on Cornwall being the landscape that inspired the biggest number of fictional backdrops.”
“The first time I visited Cornwall it felt like another country, an exciting world”
One title, in particular, to catch our eye was Wrecker, the debut novel of emerging talent, Noel O’Reilly, set in the fictional fishing village of Porthmorvoren, a dark, superstitious corner of far west Cornwall. The novel is told through the perspective of Mary Blight, a spirited local young woman, who is not afraid to speak her mind and tell it like it is. According to industry journal The Bookseller, the book was snapped up by HarperCollins “in the fastest pre-empt literary agent David Headley has ever seen.” Naturally eager to find out what the fuss is all about, we catch up with Noel to hear more.
Noel has always had a creative streak, writing comedy sketches in the 1980s and playing saxophone in a band, before becoming a journalist. About ten years ago, he started taking writing fiction more seriously, chipping away on weekends and holidays, honing his craft to reach the point he is at now. Of Irish descent, Noel has long been captivated with Cornwall, often visiting with his family, enjoying holidays in Port Isaac, bodyboarding with kids at Polzeath, kicking back at Porthmeor beach, and most recently, exploring the wilds of West Penwith.
“The first time I visited Cornwall it felt like another country,” Noel tells us, “an exciting world.” He tapped into this feeling when sowing the seeds for Wrecker. “I love the wildness and ruggedness of it; the paganism and mythology – it’s an enchanting place. The time and setting of my novel is very superstitious.”
For Noel, this particular vision of Cornwall made the perfect setting for historic fiction. “The remoteness of it, the notion of people on the edge of civilisation – literally the Land’s end, in the 1800s. Du Maurier plugged into the magical, ethereal qualities of Cornwall, though she could be quite dark and brooding too.”
To an extent Noel’s novel is a conscious reaction against the idealised portrayal of Cornwall often seen in fiction and on screen. “I was attracted to the darker, gothic side… the wider metaphor for clinging to the edge of the land. At this time, there was much social conflict; ships coming in from the Americas… I wanted to focus on the real, normal people, the country folk going about their lives, which to me is much more interesting. There’s prettiness in there too, but at the same time I wanted to draw out the paganism of the time.”
The novel is written entirely from the point of view of the feisty heroine, Mary Blight, “on her uppers, grabbing what she can. Her moral compass is awry. I wanted to write something that’s a work of the imagination and not too formulaic. Once I focussed on Mary Blight, and found that voice, I realised she had to tell the story. You’re rooting for that one person.”
From initial inspiration, it took Noel four years to write. “I had already started another contemporary story set in Cornwall, but just couldn’t get it to work.” While staying in Mousehole, Noel discovered a local history book with a vintage photograph on the cover of a young girl carrying pales of water down a dark alleyway, which he found extremely compelling. “I wondered, what was her life like?”
And so the new story began to take shape, with Noel carrying out a huge amount of research on Cornish social history. “A lot of the stuff in the book did actually happen,” he explains, “but I was also ‘writing in the dark’, letting the story plot the journey.”
The title itself, Wrecker, is arguably a provocative one, conjuring up a range of conflicting emotions here in Cornwall. Yet this is perhaps something of a misnomer, with religion and the complexities of living in small remote communities being the more central themes of the book.
Noel gets his wider inspiration from a range of sources, from the landscape itself, to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Yet Wrecker can be seen as the latest offering in a recent trend towards literary historical fiction, rich with evocative, colourful language, in successful books like Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton. While not directly influenced by these books – he was deep into his own novel by this point – Noel took a similar approach to imagining another world. And so returning to the aforementioned Poldark… although his book may capitalise on its success, he had started writing the book before the new adaptation hit the screens. “I thought I had this period of Cornwall all to myself!” he jokes. And Noel’s tale is very much a beast of its own.
Wrecker is published by HQ, available now in hardback, eBook and audio.
"The first time I visited Cornwall it felt like another country, an exciting world"