Ten years after the Mayflower pilgrims arrived on rocky, unfamiliar soil, Plymouth is not the land its residents had imagined. Seemingly established on a dream of religious freedom, in reality the town is led by fervent puritans who prohibit the residents from living, trading, and worshiping as they choose. By the time an unfamiliar ship, bearing new colonists, appears on the horizon one summer morning, Anglican outsiders have had enough.
A richly complex and sorrowful work ... The prominence of female characters provides a refreshing filter through which to see a familiar history ... In this powerful work, Nesbit renders the past without muting its gravity.
Perhaps my being English distorts my reading here, but I see something else at the novel’s core, a critique of Englishness itself. There is a contradiction underpinning the whole project of English imperialism, and Nesbit flags it perfectly ... For all the novel’s quietness of telling, its currency is the human capacity for cruelty and subjugation, of pretty much everyone by pretty much everyone ... The depiction of cruelty is all the more nuanced for being told through the prism of the female characters. They are not weak, but they are powerless, ruled by men and God ... It’s here, in the narration, that the novel finds itself — in the equable plainness of its language, a plainness that is nevertheless impressionistic and light-filled. There are some bright, startled moments in which Nesbit makes something utterly recognizable and mundane, yet also utterly other ... The novel is most successful where it allows itself to stray from historical fact and plot — to invent and to play with language, to give itself imaginative time and space. Nesbit is brilliant in those moments, and captures a paradox of historical writing — that it’s in the invention and improvisation that the past feels most pressing and most real.
... compelling ... successfully evokes what happens in this society strained by inequality, especially for the women, who are allowed little to no voice in matters of life and death ... Nesbit so persuasively creates her two main female characters, their voices and their fraught partial alliance that the sections focused on one man can seem extraneous ... Despite the novel’s intended tight focus on the immigrant colonists, readers may wish for more understanding of the men and women of the Wampanoag Nation, and how their stories might have broadened the narrative. However, in a thoroughly considered author’s note, Nesbit clearly describes which sources she worked from and how she used the historical record to inspire her fictional account ... it can be fun and illuminating to recognize certain well-known figures from history, and to observe how a skilled novelist such as Nesbit in Beheld disrupts expectation to render the pulsing messy lives of those too often calcified in myth