The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk
This is a book which covers so much in terms of character, setting and themes that it is a huge achievement. The named character, Zachary Cloudesley, is a remarkable character from his first moments, but it is people’s reactions to him that form the main theme of this novel. It is set in London in the mid 1700s onwards, but this is no delicate comedy as it moves to rural England and onwards to Constantinople. The fabled city of the Ottoman empire is almost another character in this book, in a novel populated with amazing people and creations. It begins with something distressingly common, a birth which ends in the death of a much loved woman, Alice, and the survival of a remarkable child. His loving and helpless father, Abel, is left without a clue what to do with a quiet but seemingly healthy baby boy, and it is here that the adventure begins. It is such a well constructed book, with fantastic settings throughout that are vividly described. I became totally engaged with this book, able to visualise the scenes that came to life in the writing.
The main strength of this book, however, is the remarkable set of characters that the author has created. Zachary is described as having a remarkable gift for seeing visions which seem to predict the future, but it is certainly not always a gift that he is grateful for throughout the book. He grows to be a fiercely intelligent boy with an insatiable curiosity and boundless energy, which almost proves his downfall when an accident changes his life. His father Abel is left totally bereft by his wife’s death, but is fortunate to engage the strong willed Mrs Morley who takes over the baby’s care. An amazing relative, Lady Frances Peake-Barnes, is on hand to care for the little boy, but she has her own eccentricities that run alongside her wealth and determination to take over Zachary. Abel, full of guilt at his wife’s death, clueless about caring for any baby, let alone a remarkable one, has a talent that sets him apart and dominates his life. He is a clockmaker, but also a maker of automata that can almost imitate life. He has gathered around him a group of workers who help him create wondrous models that are at once breathtakingly beautiful and lifelike. They are special characters, supporters, skilled artisans and more. They too come to regard the small Zachary with amazement and affection, and support father and son in so many ways.
This is a vibrant historical novel that moves at the same energetic pace as young Zachary. It is historically based with a lot of research, but is never slowed by surplus information; instead the characters are given plenty of time and space to develop. There is humour from several sources, including the Reverend Ratcliffe, who pronounces that “The whole point of the Church of England is to do what is expected of us without thinking too much about it”. There are touching moments, as the most unexpected people show kindness, including one man who advises Zachary to “Be subtle, be wary, be sensibly afraid.” My favourite character is undoubtedly Frances, who has some unusual ideas, enjoys disruption, and cares for several of the characters deeply.
Altogether this is a most enjoyable book, with some unusual but always consistent ideas, some beautiful images and some lively descriptions. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it. I recommend it to historical fiction fans who enjoy something a little different.