Linda Holeman
Crown Publishers 2005

A diminutive linnet (“Lin-it”) bird sings a melodious song, with as many as 26 notes. Slightly smaller than a sparrow, it was coveted as a cage-bird in the 19th Century. Which is happier, the author queries, “a linnet bird in a gilded cage or one on a bough” with the freedom that nature accords? Her lead character, Linnet (Linny) Gow (later Munt, Smallpiece and Ingram), projects that timeless dilemma: Is life better under the caged protection of some man or society, or if experienced as a free, unencumbered spirit? In this deeply moving and disturbing story of an English orphan, we learn the answer.

Linda Holeman’s The Linnet Bird (TLB), set in the 1820’s, is a deeply moving and painfully disturbing story of an orphan, Linny Gow, who was raised in the slums of Liverpool and sold into prostitution by her stepfather, at age eleven, after her mother’s demise. None of Dickens’ characters knew more privation or cruelty. Yet, her native intelligence, love of books, courage and relentless resilience, enabled her to convert herself into a seeming “lady” of proper Victorian birth and to obtain passage in a hammock on a tempest tossed-ship to India, with many similarly situated young women, sarcastically dubbed, “the Fishing Fleet”, as they were in search of suitable British husbands. Linny landed a husband, the handsome Somers Ingram, who had his own grave issues, and the trials and tribulations that ensued rivaled the agonies of her pubescent prostitution. The reader must survive the gut-wrenching and bloody cruelty of her youth, her narrow escapes of death, her perilous voyage to India, the tensions of British society in India, her capture by an Afghan military leader, her foray into opium, and the merciless beatings that ensued in her loveless marriage, in a suppressed Indian society then under imperious British rule. TLB covers only 18 years of young Linny’s life. Mercifully, Linny’s grit and determination to survive give the reader hope and the drive to accompany Linny to her denouement, in a spellbinding plot that is too complex to detail here.

The story is one of bondage in its many forms: of a child (to parents, stepparents and child-prostitution), of a young woman (to a merciless husband), of women in general (to the overpowering brutality of their “masters” (men)), and of everyone (to society’s mores and constricting rules). Linny’s admirable survival instincts and uncommonly common sense enable her to survive. As Pasternak said, in Dr. Zhivago, of his Laura, “Her candle burned; the candle burned”, after her ignominious attempt to assassinate Komarovsky. Like Laura, Linny’s will to survive sustains her – and all who refuse to accept defeat.

Holeman’s prose is gripping and graphic, bringing everything (feelings, scenes, scents, tastes, and sounds) to life in classically written, incipiently poetic style. Her turgid descriptions of the insufferable Indian heat, ineffable insects, and cataclysmic monsoons are as vivid as any camera could accord. Consider this snippet: “The sun had become a threatening and brutal master, washing out the color from the trees, roads, gardens, and rocks. Surfaces became impossible to touch…There was a debilitating humidity…insects that defied description or explanation…Even my words, when I had the energy to speak, seemed to melt as they left my mouth, dissolving as if made of sugar, denuded of meaning.” In additions to her poignant descriptions, as a pure story-teller, she has genius — the ability to keep the reader breathless, driven to keep reading and even resenting interruption. The Linnet Bird, like a frigate, recalling Emily Dickinson’s analogy, takes us miles away, on an unforgettable journey, to a land and life that we’ll never know. Yet, despite the pains of the life depicted, it is an uplifting experience.