Genevra Littlejohn reviews The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara

The Unbinding of Mary Reade by Miriam McNamara cover

“I’m livid every time I think about what Jimmy did to me, but you know what enrages me even more? How people started to think that he had a *right* to do what he did, and that I was the one who should be put in the pillory. That whole town needs to be burned to the ground and started over.”

“There must be some way to get justice besides that, ” Mary mused. “There must be some way for you to go home without destroying it.”

I’ve been looking forward to reading Miriam McNamara’s The Unbinding of Mary Reade since I first heard of it at the beginning of the year. “Lesbian pirates!” the advance blurb crowed. I thought that one, yes please, and on the listed publication date I hied myself to Barnes and Noble to grab it, only to be met with disappointment; it had been pushed back to June. When the new publication date hit, I was in Portland–the far opposite side of the country from where I live–and I made sure to stop in at the YA section of Powell’s to find it. But it wasn’t on the shelf, and a quizzical consultation with my smartphone told me that it had been pushed back yet again. So I finished out my vacation empty-handed, still waiting. This time, when the appointed day came around, I didn’t go to the bookstore. I got the e-book, and devoured it immediately.

The novel is the story, somewhat embellished, of the actual historical figures of Mary Reade and Anne Bonny, female pirates who lived and fought during the 1700’s. I’ll leave it to you to do the inevitable Wikipedia trawling if you want to know more about these two remarkable women’s lives, but much of what is in the novel is fairly accurate. Mary Reade was the daughter of a British woman, born out of wedlock and thereafter raised under her dead infant brother’s name. The early novel details her childhood as “Mark” Reade, a footman in the service of the actual Mark’s paternal grandmother. Mary made it to teenhood without the deception ever being discovered, and this is where the book separates somewhat from real life. In the story, Mary decides to join up as a sailor to get away from her grandmother’s service after being found out, and is eventually on a ship attacked by pirates. She’s decided already that she’d rather be a pirate than ever spend another minute having to deal with the ship’s brutal captain, but she wasn’t expecting that these pirates would already have a woman in their midst, and this one open and unabashed. Anne Bonny captures her attention as easily as the pirates capture her ship. And regardless of the early blurb, both of them are bisexual.

The story switches back and forth between two timelines: the one where Mary is growing up as a girl forced to be a boy, trying to give up her femininity entirely to preserve her future, and the one where Mary convincingly presents as male, but wishes she had Anne’s boldness. No matter what the timeline is, whether Mary is revealed or still able to pass as male, she is who she is: conflicted, hungry for a future she can shape to her own will, and desperate to escape the past. She hates having to be seen as male, though she finds that she likes feminine attention and she doesn’t know how to function without the freedom afforded to her by wearing trousers. She hates being beholden to stronger men, or to the whims of women who would destroy her if they knew her for who she is. The women are no safer to be around than the men are, though for different reasons, as they are as much a part of their society as the men, and society fights to preserve itself without changing. While it never states it outright, this book is very much about being female “the right way,” or being punished, and about how even if you do it perfectly you won’t be worth as much socially as any man. Anne and Mary’s twin desperations saturate every page. They each just want to live, without being owned by or owing anyone. Even today that can be a very difficult thing, but for a woman in the 1700’s? It’s no wonder that the real-life Mary and Anne were pirates.

While Mary is not written as trans, I was relieved to see that the book didn’t have any transphobia on the part of the sympathetic characters. There’s homophobia to spare, but only from the antagonists and society, and it was presented believably, with even some of those characters conflicted about their own prejudices. Every single character in the book, Mary and Anne not excepted, holds misogynistic views in a way I found realistic, if chilling now and again. Mary longs to be able to be “woman enough” to attract the favorable attention of a man she grew up beside, and Anne is desperate to be strong enough to have the freedom to just survive, to not starve or have to worry about her physical safety. Both of them want something outside the confines of society’s structure, both of them have been punished for performing femininity “wrongly:” Anne for her quick mouth, Mary for her masculinity.

The story is also about inevitability. About how no matter what you might do, the one thing which is inescapable is yourself, and how easy it is to turn on someone else even if they’re caught in the same trap you are. Neither woman would have been safe if they’d conformed, because no woman in that world was safe. For all that they are attracted to each other’s abilities and brightness, Anne and Mary aren’t free of the misogyny of the culture they were born into. They snipe at each other, they dare and injure each other over their differences and hiss with jealousy over their similarities. While Mary is fascinated by Anne’s willingness to seize any possible chance to get ahead, she’s disturbed by it when it’s pointed her direction. While Anne wishes that she could be as believably male as Mary, she’s stunned when Mary behaves as hurtfully as a man would, and as jealously. Mary makes it halfway around to world, just to realize that “The market was full of the people she had left behind, come here to find a new beginning. Just like her.” If you depend on others for your freedom, you will never find it. It’s only when the two of them are able to realize that to get what they long for they have to be themselves, as much as possible, that they are able to find a middle ground.

Neither of them can go home, because the home they dream of doesn’t exist and never existed. But maybe, if they decide to take it with them, they can make a home that is everything they want.

I can be pretty strict in my demands from the things I read, but this one was just enjoyable to read from the very beginning. There’s a sort of constant tension that makes it easy to sympathize with Mary’s plight. I know how their story ended in real life, but when you come down to it, any living person’s story really ends with the same sentence, and the important stuff is done before it. All I wanted, reading, was for Mary and Anne to be able to find a place for themselves to be together for a little while, the wind at their backs and smiles on their faces, and I was not disappointed.

Final rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Trigger warnings: misogyny, attempted rape, homophobia, the execution of unnamed characters for wearing women’s clothing (this era doesn’t have the concept of being transgender, so it’s impossible to tell through the main character’s eyes if these people are trans, or men in dresses), some historically-accurate violence, none of any of this glorified or salivated over by the author.

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