I was drawn to The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by the setting – 18th century Constantinople – but I wasn’t sure that it would really be my sort of book. From the blurb, I was expecting a strong magical realism element, something I don’t always get on with. However, I was pleased to find that this aspect of the novel was actually much more subtle than I’d expected.
The story begins in London in 1754 with the birth of Zachary Cloudesley. Sadly, his mother dies giving birth to him, leaving little Zachary to be raised by his father Abel, a clockmaker and inventor of automata. Fortunately, Abel doesn’t have to do this alone – help soon arrives in the form of wet nurse Mrs Morley and the eccentric Aunt Frances, two very different women who go on to play important roles in Zachary’s life.
From an early age, it becomes apparent that Zachary possesses the gift of ‘second sight’ which allows him to see into the future and this gift only becomes stronger following a serious accident for which Abel blames himself. In order to keep his son safe, Abel is persuaded to accept a commission which takes him far away from his London workshop, to Constantinople (Istanbul). But when Abel fails to return from his journey, Zachary is determined to follow him and do whatever it takes to rescue his missing father.
The first half of this novel has a very Dickensian feel. I was particularly reminded of Dombey and Son, which also begins with a baby being born, the death of the mother in childbirth and the arrival of a wet nurse. I enjoyed getting to know the characters who make up the Cloudesley household: the forthright, opinionated but warm-hearted Grace Morley and her little daughter Leonora; the larger-than-life Aunt Frances who takes her crow and two parrots everywhere she goes; and Abel’s apprentice Tom, an intelligent, talented young man with a not-so-well hidden secret. All of these people have interesting histories of their own, which are revealed during the early stages of the novel.
When the action moves away from London, to the heart of the Ottoman Empire, we are treated to some colourful descriptions of Constantinople, the sultan’s palace, and the seraglio, presided over by the kizlar agha (the head of the eunuchs). However, this is where I felt the story lost its way a little bit and for a while I struggled to stay interested. I think this could have been partly due to the focus switching to Zachary who, despite being the title character, was not as engaging as Frances or Mrs Morley. I’m also not quite sure what the point was in the ‘second sight’ aspect of the book as it didn’t really seem essential to the plot. Still, this was an entertaining debut novel by Sean Lusk – if you read and enjoy it, I can recommend Cynthia Jefferies’ The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan for another adventure in Constantinople or The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola if you’re interested in the world of 18th century automata.
Thanks to Doubleday for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 27/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.