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New York City in 1778 was in many ways a peculiar spot. When the Continental Army was forced to withdraw across the Hudson following the Battle of White Plains, what it left behind was a Tory enclave, the main base of the Royal British Navy and filled with those loyal to the Crown, Loyalist refugees from other colonies, representatives of Great Britain, and assorted slaves, deserters, profiteers, and the generally desperate. Two major fires had substantially reduced the number of habitable houses and many were reduced to living in Canvas Town, whose name speaks for itself.
Woefully underprepared for what he will be called upon to deal with, Edward Savill, a London clerk, is dispatched to sort out the damage claims of dispossessed Loyalists. He will lodge with a respectable Tory family, the Wintours, father a judge, mother sinking fast into dementia, and daughter-in-law Arabella. Absent is son Jack, missing behind rebel lines and presumed by many, though not all, to be dead. Savill's first glimpse of the city where he will spend far longer than he anticipated can stand as an emblem for the book as a whole. From a distance, and after long weeks at sea, it "shimmered like the new Jerusalem in the light of the setting sun." Closer to, and in "the hard light of day, it lost its celestial qualities and was revealed as a paltry, provincial sort of place." Closer still, Savill is treated to the spectacle of a dead body floating in the East River, its face eaten away by fish and left to drift on the current. It is just the first of the two bodies that will greet him before his first day ashore is over.
For an investigator, Savill strikes the reader as a rather uncurious man. For the most part, he is willing to go along to get along, accepting what he is told pretty much without serious question. The only thing about which he expresses deep feeling is his little daughter, left in England with his wife to whom he appears largely indifferent. He is similarly uninterested in the political and military situation at this time of revolution. He accepts what is the general wisdom of Tory New York - it is only a matter of time until the rebels collapse and the colonies are returned to sense. Until then, one goes about one's business calmly as befits a gentleman and a loyal subject of King George. It may be that armed rebels roam the "Debatable Ground," an area just north of the city or that the city itself encloses an area of virtual anarchy whose inhabitants are encamped precariously under tarps and old sails in a condition of almost total lawlessness. Savill asks few questions.
Likewise, he asks no questions about slavery and seems not to doubt the convenient characterization of slaves as sub-human offered by those who own them. It is an ignorance for which he will pay a price, just as the British will pay for their failure to comprehend what is happening in the nascent new nation. As far as we know, Savill has never so much as heard the siren call of liberty and revolution, let alone succumbed to it.
Yet Savill is fundamentally a decent man, with sound instincts. He tries to do good, if tardily, at least to the degree that the constraints of his upbringing permit. He is, moreover, at heart a kind man, a trait in rather short supply in besieged New York. But good intentions and a code of gentlemanly behaviour will only carry one so far. Although Savill does not admit it at the time, his perilous journey into the Debatable Ground outside the city changes him profoundly so that he is able to respond to a mortal threat in a surprisingly brutal way, something he might not have been able or willing to do had he remained safely within the confines of Tory New York.
Taylor has many strengths as an historical novelist, and the rarest and most brilliant is his ability not merely to present a rich and colourful pageant for our entertainment, but to immerse the reader in the past almost as a participant, a time traveller who has briefly abandoned his own moment to wander in another, stranger time. Savill tells his story in the first person, addressing us directly, assuming we are part of his world and will understand him, if not in detail, then at least in general. It is a pity that a US edition of SCENT OF DEATH has not so far been announced, as I cannot think of another novel that so perceptively presents the other side of the American Revolution in all its mundane persuasiveness. This is a struggle generally presented in American fiction as one between soaring principles of liberty and freedom and foreign tyranny; this book reminds us of the degree to which the war was a civil matter, with those suffering the most wrenching losses the Americans who remained loyal to the Crown.
SCENT OF DEATH is a substantial contribution to Taylor's already formidable body of historical fiction. From the Lydmouth series, set in provincial post-war Britain, to London in the 1930s (BLEEDING HEART SQUARE) to Georgian England (THE AMERICAN BOY, AN ANATOMY OF GHOSTS), Taylor offers readers the rare chance to immerse themselves in a past as though it were the present and to emerge from the experience seeing their own time with new eyes.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2013
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