“Life is like streaky bacon,” say the Romani gypsies in Sara Stockbridge’s breezy and brilliant Cross My Palm: “there is some fat, and then some lean, and you had better take them together.” This sensible creed often provides solace to our protagonist, seasoned young fortune-teller Rose, who from the age of 12 has been getting by on her wits among the gadje—non-gypsies—in the centre of thronging, iniquitous Victorian London. Clever, conniving Rose makes her living mainly by reading palms, particularly those of aristocratic ladies for whom “mystic soirées” are an amusing diversion, while also indulging in occasional con-artistry with her friend Lillie.
Rose does maintain certain ethical standards, mind you: she won’t resort to the kind of “common” and “vulgar” tricks used by other palm readers, such as “seeing” a curse that can only be lifted for twenty pounds: “I like a trick to have a little more of a game about it, give the mark a chance to work it out—to win, if you like—not just grab their money and run. I’d call that plain thieving.” And indeed, when it comes to palm reading, Rose is not entirely a charlatan. She withholds and embellishes information as she sees fit, but nevertheless is confident in her talent, passed down by her grandmother, for accurately divining a person’s future by examining the lines, patterns, and creases on their hand.
So, when she sees “fearful, violent death” on the palm of Emily, a guest at a gathering thrown by Lady Quayle of Cavendish Square, Rose decides not to frighten Emily by sharing the news—a decision confirmed when “a tiny star” on the palm of Lady Quayle’s daughter, Tabitha, reveals her to be the likely murderer. Rose wouldn’t want to upset Lady Quayle—who’s already disturbed enough by Tabitha’s broken engagement to an eligible Earl—especially since her ladyship has decided, guided by Rose’s visions via the crystal ball, to burnish her reputation by financing the “saving” of a fallen woman, a “poor lost heart, behind a smiling face, sitting on the steps of the Theatre Royal,” a.k.a. Rose’s trusty accomplice Lillie.
Rose believes that fate is never set in stone, but rather our everyday actions “alter the course of our lives and the fortune that is written on the palms of our hands.” She certainly hopes that the destiny printed on her left hand, death by drowning, will eventually change; in the meantime, she simply avoids river crossings, boats, deep baths, and looking at her palm too often. As for poor Emily’s violent death, apparently at the hands of her friend Tabitha, Rose must get to grips with the circumstances that might lead to such a calamity, and thus prevent it. It’s to be presumed that the handsome man she spied drinking champagne with Emily and Tabitha at the Argyll Rooms, a most disreputable haunt on The Haymarket, will be implicated in some way. But what Rose doesn’t predict—not being in the habit of regularly examining her own palm—is the extent to which she herself will be ensnared in the tale of treachery fast unfolding.
That tale, in which Rose’s delightfully spiky narration is supplemented by Tabitha’s diaries and by the police reports that start coming in when she’s reported kidnapped, is so deftly plotted and gorgeously written as to create the perfect balance between captivating suspense and pure escapist entertainment. Rich in authentic period detail and convincing 19th-century dialogue, yet thoroughly modern in its wry wit and levity, Cross My Palm is so easy and fun to read that it belies its author’s immense skill. But don’t be fooled: Sara Stockbridge’s gift is just as rare and valuable as the one practiced by Rose, a flawed, funny, and unforgettable heroine.