Donna Moore

(Fly on the Wall, £10.99)

Spanning the years 1877 to 1919, The Unpicking is a harrowing, yet moving, saga about three generations of women and the injustices they suffer under a male-dominated society.

The course of their lives is dictated by Lillias Gilfillan’s whirlwind 1877 romance with the duplicitous Arthur Strang. An orphaned heiress living in Bristol with her aunt, Lillias is swept off her feet by the silver-tongued businessman, not realising that he’s only interested in her inheritance, and she is happy to release some of it so that he can buy a Stirlingshire mansion.

He tells her that his money is all tied up in business and he’s going to have to live off her for a little while, which Lillias, still breathlessly excited about being in love and getting married, readily accepts. Even after, as many scurrilous Victorian husbands did, he has her committed to an asylum on completely spurious grounds, she finds it hard to accept that he might have any underhand motives.

It turns out that she was pregnant when she entered the asylum, and her daughter Clementina is fated to spend her childhood there with the still-incarcerated Lillias. Moore zips forward 17 years to find Clementina in a home for wayward girls, having run away and changed her surname to prevent her father marrying her off to one of his business partners. Eventually escaping that institution too, she tries to find work in one of the roughest parts of Glasgow, her thoughts still haunted by the “jingling devil”, the man who was permitted access to her dormitory after hours to select girls to spirit away into the night – girls who were never seen again.

The third and final part concerns Clementina’s daughter, Mabel, who in 1919 becomes one of the first women admitted into the Glasgow police to run the gauntlet of her new colleagues’ open hostility. Her duties are restricted to taking statements from female witnesses, but she is determined to use her position to find out what happened to her mother and somehow uncover the truth of her origins.

Each of the three sections could conceivably have been expanded into a novel in its own right, but Moore has resisted any temptation to do so and kept it to a concise 240 pages. Her central characters are as vivid and well-realised as they are distinct from each other, and they form a progression, from the naïve Lillias to the sharp, courageous survivor Clementina and then the driven Mabel, raised by Suffragettes, who is intent on taking on men on their own turf.

It’s a powerful and potentially triggering story, with miserable ends for several of its female characters. The air hangs heavy with constant menace, and Moore evokes the wariness and vigilance of women and girls who have learned never to let their guard down: the heightened senses of the oppressed and vulnerable. There are villains here, of almost stereotypical moustache-twirling wickedness, but at every turn Moore highlights the institutional and societal misogyny that enables them, the collusion they can always rely on, whether in an asylum, a girls’ home or the police force.

One of the appeals of historical novels is the ability to immerse oneself in another time while still holding it at a distance, but that’s hard to do here. Every misogynistic slight endured by Lillias, Clementina, Mabel and their sisters serves as a reminder not only of how far we’ve come but how far we still have to go. The Unpicking is, therefore, an uncomfortable read, but also a stirring tribute to resilience, hope and self-belief.