The Curious Case of the Lady Caraboo by Catherine Johnson


Shortlisted for the 2016 YA Book Prize

When a mysterious girl is found on a West Country road, ragged and penniless and unable to speak or understand English, her proud and fearless bearing lead people to believe that she is a noblewoman from a distant land. Caraboo, as the girl names herself, is taken in by a wealthy family, whose initial doubts are calmed when a scientist judges her to be authentic. But Caraboo is not all she seems. She may act like a brave and haughty princess, but somewhere inside her lurks an ordinary girl with a tragic past.

The Curious Case of the Lady Caraboo is set near the start of the nineteenth century and based on a true story of a young woman from a lowly background who fooled a wealthy family and a collection of scientists into believing she was a foreign princess. Catherine Johnson shows us the story from the point of view of the family members – wondering if they were being deceived, standing up for their house-guest against doubters, wanting to show her off as an exotic specimen, taking advantage of her lack of language to use her as a confessional – and from Caraboo herself – her taking up of the role of princess, the difficulties of the deception, the way her true persona begins to creep back in. Caraboo’s moral dilemma is intriguing and believable: that at first she only wishes to become everything she has not been able to be for the rest of her life, but the longer she stays the less honest the persona of Caraboo becomes.

It’s always interesting to see how authors tackle the problem of putting feisty modern heroines into a historical setting without being anachronistic. The story of Caraboo treads the line delicately: the deception begins because her sex and her social position make her powerless and the later peril is that at any moment the power she has gained may be snatched away from her again.

The Curious Case of the Lady Caraboo is an entertaining read, and, to be honest, it was refreshing to read something that wasn’t trying to lecture me about something that’s wrong with the world today. Pure story skilfully written so that we get the internal view of all the major characters smoothly and as is relevant to the plot. It seems almost old-fashioned in style among more common style of YA literature: first person present narratives which stick to one point of view, or those which cut from one character’s pov to another’s from chapter to chapter (don’t think I’m complaining – that’s the way I tend to write and I think it serves YA very nicely thank you, but I’ve read quite a lot of it lately and it can be exhausting to read. There’s room for more measured story-telling too).

Definitely recommended, although I wonder if it’s got enough heft to be a real contender for the YA Book Prize.

Claire Watts

piranha stars green 4



More to Read!

If you’ve enjoyed The Curious Case of the Lady Caraboo, try reading Fallen Grace by Mary Hooper, a novel about a young girl whose illegitimate baby dies, set later in the nineteenth century.

The period of this book is just after the time when Jane Austen was writing. If you haven’t yet dipped a toe into her works, start with Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey. They may be two hundred years old, but they’re clever and funny and not as taxing a read as some other classic literature.

Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her latest YA novel is How Do You Say GOOSEBERRY in French? You can read the first chapter here.

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