This book by Bonnie Leon was part of the "shopping spree" I went on earlier this year after receiving a Kindle for my birthday - it is available as a free e-book on Amazon, and that's why I downloaded it, admittedly without really looking at it first.
Had I done that, maybe I wouldn't have added it to the collection of fiction on my Kindle; it is what you could call a religious novel, and since I am not part of any religion myself, the constant references to the importance of all-enduring Christian love and faith were a bit much for my liking. Having said that, it does fit the story well, since I suppose in those days for many people their faith was the only thing that kept them going, as it is probably the case for a vast number of people today, although maybe less so in what we like to call our "Western" society but more in developing countries.
We start in London in the year 1804, and meet the two main characters independently of each other. Hannah is a seamstress who, by no means wealthy, leads a sheltered and modestly happy life with her widowed mother, sharing a small rented place where they both live and work, making fine clothes for London's elegant ladies.
John is a wealthy business man, married and well established with his tool-making company, a trade he has learnt from his late father.
When Hannah's mother dies of a fever, the former customers don't show loyalty to Hannah and move their orders elsewhere. Now that she can not pay the rent anymore, she is turned out of the only place she has known as home, and wanders the streets of London, trying to find work.
She does find employment as a scullery maid with a magistrate and his wife, but after a terrible incident, she flees the house and is once again on the street. When hunger leads her to steal a loaf of bread, she is caught and sentenced in court to 14 years of deportation to New South Wales.
John's cousin betrays him, and he is left with no money, no business, no wife and almost no life - only by intervention of his attorney, who still trusts in his innocence, he is spared the gallows and sent to serve a life sentence in New South Wales instead.
The inevitable happens: Both "passengers" on the prison ship taking them on the horrible journey to Australia, Hannah and John meet, and are instantly drawn to each other, knowing very well that they do not stand a chance to anything ever becoming of their relationship.
They first have to survive the six month journey and of course there is no guarantee they will ever set eyes on each other again once arrived at the prison colony.
To begin with, live does not seem to improve much on land compared to the apalling conditions on the ship, but then the tide turns, and John and Hannah get a chance for happiness.
The morale of the story is that one should never lose faith, and leave all revenge to God; now, one can simply read this book as historical romance and still find it a pleasant read, which is what I did. It kept me company all day yesterday on the train to and from work; I finished the whole book in about five hours.
Everything the book says about how crime - even something as insignificant as stealing bread out of real need - was dealt with in those days, and how little a human life was regarded (not that this has changed much in some parts of the world). Also, how the system of deporting "criminals" to the prison colonies worked is certainly well described and researched, and I do not consider having read this book a waste of time.
My next read is going to be some non-fiction again.