Steve Tilston will be fondly remembered by many readers as one of the leading lights on the Bristol folk music scene in the 1970s and 80s – a fine musician with an international reputation. But that’s no reason to suppose that his first novel will be any good. So it’s a pleasure to report that All for Poor Jack is an outstanding literary debut. It’s a historical novel of epic proportions, finely crafted and with a compelling plot.

Matty Tyrell is shipwrecked on the coast of the New World after his Bristol ship The Swallow runs aground. He and a shipmate are captured by a Penacook war party of Native Americans and force-marched back to their homeland through a series of skirmishes with other tribes culminating in a full-scale and bloody battle, the shipmate meeting an unpleasant end on the way. Be warned the descriptions of the fighting and particularly what happens to the dead or captured warriors are particularly graphic.

Back in Bristol, Matty’s brother Simon is wrongly accused of murder when an apprentice dies in a game of ‘football’ on Brandon Hill so he flees to join the leper and outlaw colony camped high above the Avon Gorge. The brutality of life in 15th Century Bristol mirrors that of the Penacook and the twin plots are skilfully developed before culminating in an unexpected climax.

The descriptions of the port of Bristol and the way in which it was administered financially make particularly interesting reading and there’s a wonderful description of life (and, again, death) in the 15th Century city as Simon flees the leper and brigand colony and tries to re-enter the city. Tilston has obviously researched his subject in great depth and has that enviable ability to take facts and figures and draw vivid characters and embroider his story with precise details that make the overall picture so evocative. This is true of both the port scenes in Bristol and Matty’s adventure in the New World. And although the story revolves mainly around the two brothers, the supporting cast of characters are all strongly drawn and the many sub plots add to, rather than distract from, the main narrative. I found the minor characters of the Bristol Port Master’s manservant and the Sergeant gave a particularly illuminating insight into the details of life in 15th Century Bristol.

Underlying the plot is the theory that Bristol merchants and seafarers were fully aware of the existence of the New World long before Cabot or Columbus ‘discovered’ America. America was the best-kept secret in town. The reason? British vessels were forbidden from fishing in Icelandic waters and so headed west to find new fishing grounds. If an expeditionary ship sailed from Bristol and returned with a hold full of cod, or Poor Jack as the fish was known, there was no tax payable on the cargo because it was a by-product of the expedition, whereas, fishing boats were taxed on their catch.

It’s just one of the book’s admirable complexities that Tilston has taken an economic theory about the ‘discovery’ of America and used it to create such a compelling and imaginative historical novel.

All for Poor Jack is a really good read. Steve Tilston should be very proud of his first novel.

Richard Jones

Richard Jones is a journalist and publisher who runs Tangent Books in Bristol