cover image Mrs. Engels

Mrs. Engels

Gavin McCrea. Catapult (PGW, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-936787-29-6

McCrea’s richly imagined debut novel is narrated by Irishwoman Lizzie Burns, the longtime lover of The Communist Manifesto coauthor Frederick Engels. In 1870, the couple leaves Manchester (where the wealthy Engels family once employed Lizzie at their cotton mill) to reside in London. Lizzie’s new life is opulent but empty: she is uncomfortable with upper-class society and excluded from most of Frederick’s activities, including his cerebral efforts to liberate her own class. Struggling to find a purpose, Lizzie seeks out her old flame, the Irish radical Moss O’Malley, whose cause always needs funds. She attempts to help the illegitimate son that Frederick had two decades before and seems to have forgotten. Even as she fights for others, Lizzie nurses wounds of her own: she longs to be married, despite Frederick’s disdain for such conventions, and she fears that he will never forget her deceased sister Mary, who was his former lover. McCrae gives the illiterate Lizzie a vivid, convincing voice, sparkling with energy and not untouched by pathos. Her sharp, pragmatic observations offer a human perspective on historical icons (Marx has boils, while Engels is overwhelmed by letters from his mother). But the heart of the novel is the beautifully realized romance between Lizzie and Frederick: a mismatch of values and temperaments, yet also a tender and complex bond. (Oct.)