Review: The Low Road by Katharine Quarmby

Today, I welcome historical fiction author Katharine Quarmby to Ruins & Reading. I've read her new book, The Low Road, and it's a fascinating story of two women trying to survive at a time of hardship and danger. Have a look!

The Low Road is currently on blog tour with The Coffee Pot Book Club. Make sure to check out all the other fabulous posts here!




The Low Road

Katharine Quarmby

When Katharine Quarmby submitted The Low Road to The Coffee Pot Book Club Book of the Year Awards 2023 (it won Silver in one category and an Honourable Mention in another), I was immediately intrigued by the premise of this novel, based on a true story: two young women thrown together by circumstance, with a strong will to survive in a society where where the fight for everyday survival – against starvation, abuse, rape – never stopped.

In the early 19th century, young Hannah lives with her mother, a midwife, on a farm in rural Norfolk. When her mother is accused of infanticide, and to be put on trial, she takes poison to avoid the horrors of trial by torture that so often blighted those legal processes. Judged a suicide, her mother is then staked through the heart, in what caused anxiety in the young girl. And with folk being superstitious – like mother, like daughter – Hannah is sent to a home for the destitute in London. A bleak place for any child to end up in.
Over time, she forges a friendship with Annie, which slowly grows into affection and love. This is an aspect rarely written about, and while some may find it not very credible, I think the opposite. But more of that later.

When the girls are accused of stealing from the institution, they are condemned to Australia, but it still takes six years before they finally head southwards. Separated from her friend and lover, Hannah must forge her own future. But in the vastness of Australia, dangers lurk, and she has to look out for herself. 

Will she ever see Annie again? Well, read the book!

The Low Road is a fascinating tale of survival in the early 19th century. Women, particularly those from poor backgrounds, are treated woefully, and are easy prey for those with an agenda. They have no rights. The rich and powerful make the laws, and girls like Hannah and Annie find themselves at the bottom of the food chain. Starvation is accepted by the rich and the emerging middle classes, blaming the poor for their own fate – but do everything they can to maintain the status quo.

It's a tough read at times, as Ms Quarmby describes the cruel treatment in great (but never sordid) detail. She does not shy away from showing us the relentless dangers young women faced wherever they went. Very well-researched, Ms Quarmby delves into the dark underbelly of society, showing up the class system for what it was. Yet we also see kindness and affection, sometimes from unexpected quarters. Two sides of a coin – or two sides of a city, if you will.
The author takes us on a vivid journey through rural Norfolk, the streets of London (grimy or genteel) and the vast Australian territories, and we can see each location through Hannah's eyes. We get a strong sense of her thoughts, and how her actions affect each step in her life. Her love for Annie remains strong throughout, and I think that is her strongest attribute. Grown out of desperation and loneliness, I find it completely believable that two women would form a loving relationship, beyond that of a close friendship, even in a society throttled by a strict moral code (which usually applied to women only, anyway, not men!).
But despite depicting the darkest side of society, The Low Road is a compelling novel that shows how there is always a glimmer of hope, even when everything seems stacked against you. It shows up society for what it was, and proves that resilience, love, and a strong survival instinct can help you in forging a life out of misery. 

Highly recommended.

In 1828, two young women were torn apart as they were sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay. Will they ever meet again?

Norfolk, 1813. In the quiet Waveney Valley, the body of a woman – Mary Tyrell – is staked through the heart after her death by suicide. She had been under arrest for the suspected murder of her newborn child. Mary leaves behind a young daughter, Hannah, who is later sent away to the Refuge for the Destitute in London, where she will be trained for a life of domestic service.

It is at the Refuge that Hannah meets Annie Simpkins, a fellow resident, and together they forge a friendship that deepens into passionate love. But the strength of this bond is put to the test when the girls are caught stealing from the Refuge's laundry, and they are sentenced to transportation to Botany Bay, setting them on separate paths that may never cross again.

Drawing on real events, The Low Road is a gripping, atmospheric tale that brings to life the forgotten voices of the past – convicts, servants, the rural poor – as well as a moving evocation of love that blossomed in the face of prejudice and ill fortune.


About the Author:

Katharine Quarmby

Katharine Quarmby has written non-fiction, short stories and books for children and her debut novel, The Low Road, is published by Unbound in 2023. Her non-fiction works include Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People (Portobello Books, 2011) and No Place to Call Home: Inside the Real Lives of Gypsies and Travellers (Oneworld, 2013). She has also written picture books and shorter e-books.

She is an investigative journalist and editor, with particular interests in disability, the environment, race and ethnicity, and the care system. Her reporting has appeared in outlets including the Guardian, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Times of London, the Telegraph, New Statesman and The Spectator. Katharine lives in London.

Katharine also works as an editor for investigative journalism outlets, including Investigative Reporting Denmark and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Connect with Katharine:

Amazon Author Page