In Borodale’s debut novel, young, naďve Agnes Trussel discovers that much of what we do in life stays unexplained and she will probably never understand the motives behind why her mentor, John Blacklock, a pyrotechnic and maker of fireworks, acted in the way that he did. A country girl from Sussex, Agnes’s mistake is made flesh when a new life swells up inside her at the rough hands of John Glincy, a local letch and drunkard.
Convinced that, if she stays in Sussex with her family, her "fleshy crime" will remain
and be discovered by her father and mother, she steals some gleaming gold coins from the decaying body of her neighbor, Mrs. Mellin.
As the coins begin to show their true value to her, her heart beats so fast that she can hardly hear the plan, “the twists and tangles of her life becoming like a wattle fence.”
Escaping to London, a city reveling in new ideas and inventions - and a fair amount of paucity - Agnes meets beautiful, radiant Lettice Talbot,
who warns her of potential danger ahead by telling her “you cannot trust a soul.
You must look out for tricks all the time.” Lettice kindly gives her an address of a lodging house in St Giles and the contact - Mrs. Bay
- and Agnes soon finds herself in service to the home of John Blacklock.
Her lungs breathing in the tarry smoke that hangs over the city, Agnes commences work in Blacklock’s workshop under his supervision, her employer mostly dour and unapproachable as he imparts to her the arduous work of grinding composition to make his beloved fireworks.
Her days filled with sulfur of charcoal and saltpeter, Agnes is desperate to please her new mentor.
Those in Blacklock’s household (all of whom chorus notices of disapproval at this new
fanciful upstart), Mrs. Blight, Mary Spurren, even Blacklock’s young assistant, Joe Thomazin, are wary of her.
Although Blacklock seems kindly enough, a repressive murk soon pervades every day of Agnes’s service, the girl increasingly fraught by the hopelessness of hiding her pregnancy and her thievery of Mrs. Mellin's prized coins back in Sussex. Having learned that Mr. Blacklock was himself once an ambitious man before his poor wife died suddenly, in desperation and in an effort to gain respectability, Agnes turns her attentions to Cornelious Soul, the local seller of gunpowder and explosives to the gunnery and the blasting trades.
As Borodale charts Agnes’s hardships, it becomes clear the girl has no choice but to endure everything that is placed before her. Convinced she is not of good character, having stolen money from a corpse, the coins remain sewn into her skirts as hard as stones
and cold as death. All the while, Borodale’s London brims with poverty and filth. The inequities of class, and the ever-present rumors of what goes on at Newgate Prison and the gallows tree at Tyburn, end up framing much of Agnes’s angst, paranoia, and journey towards redemption.
Still, Agnes stays loyal to John Blacklock - and he to her - the fanatical search to produce colored fireworks spurring them both on toward a strong and special bond. Throughout, Agnes longs for relief and some acceptance of forgiveness, her life a horrible seething mass of knots that settles in the place above her belly where her heart is. In due course, Borodale transcends her protagonist’s pain, the magical grains of fire, the plumes and fountains, and this thing inside Agnes that she cannot name, providing an extra dimension and a much-needed panacea to the girl's suffering.