The heroine of Kate Cayley’s first novel can’t catch a break. Born into abject poverty in 18th-century New France, Françoise Laurent is orphaned when the measles claims her drunken parents. She hits on some luck when she becomes a lady’s maid – that is, until she is caught stealing and sentenced to be hanged.
Françoise’s only hope is an obscure law, whereby a convicted woman can escape the noose by convincing the hangman to marry her. So she talks a fellow convict into becoming the hangman, and then her husband.
There are several themes running through this gripping novel. One is the disparity between the lives of the wealthy and the poor. Another is the power of words: Françoise is an adept storyteller, and her skill is at its best in her desperate appeal to Jean, the jailed man she hopes will save her life. Her ability to weave together these stories leads to some impressively hypnotic dialogue.
Based on a true story, The Hangman in the Mirror ends where the historical record falls silent, with Françoise released from jail. This could seem a little frustrating for the reader, who never finds out if Françoise finds happiness with her new life and husband, but the decision to leave her future hanging is ultimately a compelling one.