Category Archives: historical fiction

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth [book review] #Bookerprize

Sacred-HungerIt’s 210 years since an Act of Parliament abolished the slave trade in Britain, a trade upon which many personal fortunes were made; mansions, stately homes and churches built and Britain’s major ports, cities and canals developed. It’s estimated that by the early 1800s as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. This is a period of British history which still causes controversy today – earlier this year campaigners vowed to erase the name of Edward Colston from the streets of Bristol because the buildings he bequeathed to the city were funded through his involvement in the slave trade.

The profit motive that propelled merchants and investors like Colston is the theme explored in Sacred Hunger, the 1992 Booker-prize winning novel by Barry Unsworth.  It begins with the ambition of one man, William Kemp, a leading merchant in Liverpool who believes the time is ripe for the city and its entrepreneurs to reap the rewards of trade across the Atlantic and Africa. So confident is he that he has a new ship built to carry firearms to the west coast of Africa, intending to trade them for slaves to be transported and sold in the West Indies in exchange for a cargo of sugar to be taken back to England.

He knows it will be a risky endeavour. So he equips the Liverpool Merchant with special features: guns on its quarterdecks  mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts and thickened rails to make death leaps more difficult.  In his captain Saul Thurso he finds a man who will not hesitate to act in whatever way necessary to maintain order. Yet Kemp likes to think he is also a caring man so he recruits his nephew Matthew Paris as ship’s doctor, “for reasons of humanity”, much to Thurso’s astonishment and disgust.

It’s through the eyes of this doctor that we witness events on board ship once it sets sail. Paris is a complex character. In between binding the wounds of crew members and treating the symptoms of venereal disease and bloody flux (severe dysentery), he spends his time at sea reading Voltaire and Pope. His thoughts turn constantly to his  wife and his feelings of guilt for the part he played in her premature death. His objection to the profit motive, the inhumanity of slavery and the treatment of the human cargo put him at loggerheads with the Captain.

When an artist and philosopher called Deblanc joins the ship in West Africa, Paris finds he has someone with whom he can debate the legitimacy of the profit motive behind the voyage. Deblanc tells Paris how the lust for profit becomes legitimised:

Money is sacred as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.

Paris becomes increasingly disquiet about his own role in assisting the slave traders:

I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending… We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger… which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.

Thurso decides to jettison the captured slaves, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in their sickened condition. It’s the breaking point for Paris who leads a rebellion and forms a settlement off the coast of Florida where crew members and slaves live together on equal terms. They share the few remaining women slaves, communicate via a trade pidgin and trade with local Indians.

A decade later, William Kemp’s son Erasmus learns of this settlement and resolves to recapture the slaves for they are, in his eyes, his property. Book 2 of Sacred Hunger traces his journey across the Atlantic to seek retribution against his cousin, bring him to justice and reclaim the remaining slaves. Like his now-dead father, Erasmus is motivated by money and finds in Florida that the promise of land and wealth is equally compelling to the Governor of this British colony and the local Indian tribal chiefs.

The story moves at a smart pace, especially in the first book. There is a large and colourful cast of characters from the crewmen duped in wharfside brothels into joining the ship to Thurso whose glaring eyes and propensity for flogging make him an imposing figure. Unsworth provides so much detail that we feel we too are pitching and rolling through the waves or clambering up the mainmast. Fortunately the book doesn’t get so authentic that we experience the stink of the slave’s quarters in the bottom of the hull.

 

Sacred Hunger is long at 600 pages but doesn’t feel unnecessarily drawn out. It’s page after page of solid adventure, realistic 18th century dialogue and vivid prose which works without recourse to any experimentation with form. In Book 1 which takes us as far as Thurso’s murder of the slaves, Unsworth varies the tempo by alternating episodes on the Liverpool Merchant  with scenes of a failed romance and a family scandal in Liverpool.

 

Book One was a joy to read but I wasn’t as enthralled by the considerably shorter Book 2. Most of this later section is set in Florida where the hoped for utopia of a settlement of equals is clearly breaking down despite Paris’ attempt to convince the settlers that “White man, black man, all free man, all bradder, lie tagedder dis place, all same boat.” The problem for me was that so much of this section is conveyed in that kind of pidgin language. It’s understandable since it brings home the point about how difficult it is for the English and Africans to communicate but it made for some frustrating reading. Overall though this was still a good read and will find a place in the top half of my favourite Booker titles I’m sure.

 

 

Footnotes

About the book: Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992 by Hamish Hamilton. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (one of my all-time favourite Booker winners).

About the author: Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham. After university he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, then became a teacher and novelist. He worked as a lecturer in English at a London technical college and the universities of Athens and Istanbul. He was writer in residence at the University of Liverpool. In later years he made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.

Why I read this book: Sacred Hunger is one of the remaining books on my Booker prize winners project. It’s also part of my 20booksofsummer2017 list.

The Monster’s Daughter by Michelle Pretorius #bookreviews

the-monsters-daughterThe Monster’s Daughter is an impressively ambitious debut novel by South African born Michelle Pretorius. Many first-time authors would have steered clear of multiple points of view, a plot which shifts between South Africa during the Boer War of the early 1900s and the post apartheid rainbow nation of 2010 and deals with issues of race, obsession and police corruption. But Pretorius dives in fearlessly to deliver a novel that blends historical thriller, sci-fi and police procedural genres.

It begins somewhere in the open landscape of the veld. As war rages between Britain and the Dutch Boers, a doctor in a British concentration camp begins conducting genetic experiments on female prisoners. Two children survive as freaks of nature: Benjamin and Tessa, white skinned, with remarkable piercing eyes and a genetic make up that makes them look far, far younger than their actual ages.

More than 100 years after their birth, Alet Berg, a female police constable, turns up in the backwater town of Unie in disgrace after an affair with a senior officer. Only the intervention of her father, a former high-ranking police officer, has saved her from dismissal. The townspeople don’t like her drinking and swearing, her colleagues don’t rate her and she resents the way she is relegated to menial tasks. Her chance comes when she is called to a remote farm where the body of a woman has been discovered burned beyond immediate recognition. Despite opposition from her commanding officer, Alet is determined to play a part in the investigation. As it proceeds, she is taken into the violent past of her country and that of her father during the apartheid era and the country’s clandestine involvement in the independence wars in Rhodesia and Mozambique.

Threaded throughout the investigation is the story of the two children created in an experiment to design the perfect race. Tessa is adopted by a white British soldier turned farmer and his black wife who rescued the baby from the concentration camp. They and their daughter have to keep moving from place to place in order to survive in a country which forbids inter-racial relationships. As an adult, Tessa keeps moving, changing her name and residence many times over to avoid Benjamin who has fallen in love with her and believes she belongs to him. Thwarted in love, he becomes hard and cold, believing God has chosen him to be his instrument to eliminate oddities like him.

He could never get over the feeling that God was watching him, controlling him, withholding what he desired most until he did as he commanded. Though it had turned from a sharp pain to a dull ache the longing for Tessa was still with him every waking moment.

The Monster’s Daughter is powerful and atmospheric novel set in a context that is unsettling. The experiments that produce Tessa and Benjamin are precursors to those conducted by Mengele in 1940s Germany; then we have the brutal attitude of the British towards the Boers whose farms they raze under Kitchener’s Scorched Earth directive; and , coming into more recent history, the massacre at Soweto. Pretorius is clearly not afraid to delve into contentious social and political issues, showing how some ANC supporters were also culpable of acts of violence in their campaign against oppression.

The question of race features prominently as you’d expect given the history of this country. Pretorius makes it evident that there are no easy resolutions to the tensions created in the past. After Apartheid is made illegal, and the Truth and Reconciliation Committee begins its work to investigate human rights violations and consider amnesties, the resentment remains between white and black South Africans.

These blacks claim they were so oppressed. Let me remind you, nobody in this country has been more oppressed than the Afrikaner in the Boer War, or has everyone forgotten that? Our people suffered more for this land than the blacks ever did. ~but we didn’t go out killing everybody. We rebuilt the nation. We didn’t need to become terrorists or thieves or murderers to do it.

This is a novel that deals with complex moral questions but it doesn’t do so at the expense of characterisation. The individuals who people its pages are not mere ciphers spouting predictable positions, they are flesh and blood who laugh and love in the most difficult circumstances. Alet – as we’ve come to expect in fictional detectives – is a flawed individual but I warmed to her. She rubs people up the wrong way, makes mistakes but every time she’s knocked down she gets back on her feet to prove her opponents wrong.

The Monster’s Daughter isn’t without its flaws. There were so many characters I lost track at times and the final few paragraphs which summarise Alet’s future were unnecessary I thought. I do want to feel the characters I’ve come to know have a life after the book ends but that doesn’t mean I want it all tied up in a neat bow.

On the whole however I did enjoy this book and experiencing a promising new writer.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Monster’s Daughter was published by Melville House in July 2016. The paperback is published in July 2017 by Melville House.

About the Author: Michelle Pretorius was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa. She gained an MFA in fiction writing from Colombia College Chicago and is currently studying for her PhD at Ohio University. The Monster’s Daughter is her first novel.

Why I Read This Book: I enjoy fiction from Africa and I love the country of South Africa. So when the publishers asked if I’d be interested in reading this, it wasn’t too difficult a decision. My thanks to Melville House and Michelle Pretorius for giving me many pleasurable hours.

 

The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien #historicalfiction

shadowqueenThere’s much talk at present in Europe about strong women who occupy positions of power. I suppose it’s inevitable since we have a female Prime Minister in the UK plus, in the shape of Queen Elizabeth,  the country’s longest reigning monarch; a female Chancellor in Germany and at one time it looked possible that France could have its first  female President. Discussions in the media about these modern-day women at the helm of government proved a fitting companion for reading The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien.

This is a novel which takes us back seven hundred years to a woman who, while she never became Queen in her own right, was a pivotal figure in the mid 1300s. Joan of Kent (also known as the Fair Maid of Kent in celebration of her beauty) was cousin to one King, Edward III, and mother to another, Richard II. For a large part of her son’s reign she was the mastermind behind the throne since Richard was too young to govern in his own right.

She was quite a girl was our Joan. As a princess in the Plantagenet dynasty, the question of who she would marry was a matter of political expediency not love. She was meant to get hitched to either a European prince or an English lord from one of the foremost families in the land. But at the age of 12 Joan fell in love with and secretly wedded a humble knight who had barely a penny to his name. She kept it secret for three years during which time she went through a bigamous ceremony with the future Earl of Salisbury. When her bigamy was discovered it naturally caused a furore and became an international cause celébrè with various sides taking their appeals for help to the Pope. Joan got her own way but her reputation was tarnished.

You’d have thought one brush with ignominy would have been enough. But not a bit of it – years later, as a wealthy widow wooed by Edward, Prince of Wales (who later history labelled The Black Prince), she once again married in secret and once again incurred the wrath of the King.

Anne O’Brien’s novel brings to life a woman who from an early age was resolute in following a course of her own choosing:

I would never again act against my better judgement in future. I would never allow myself to be persuaded to renounce what I knew to be in my best interests. … I had learned from my mother that a woman had to keep her wits and her desires sharp if she were to follow the path of her own choosing.

A brave – though dangerous – stance to take in the highly charged atmosphere of the fourteenth century court, especially for a woman. But Joan is no shrinking violet – she is a girl intent on making a mark on the world:

What would enhance the pattern of my life further? One word slid into my mind. A seductive word. A dangerous word, perhaps, for a woman. Power.

The Shadow Queen is essentially a blend of romance and adventure that reveals how Joan kept one step ahead of the political intrigues with a combination of good judgement of character and some luck.  She spent all her life at court. She knows what games those who surround the throne play – and how to beat them at their own games.

It makes for a good yarn with plenty of drama as Joan’s future ebbs and flows. After the discovery of her first marriage she is banished from the court and kept under close confinement by her family but years later she is in France ruling the roost with her 3rd husband as Princess of Aquitaine, (an English-owned territory). Written in the first person, Anne O’Brien’s novel gives us  immediate access to Joan’s reactions to all the set backs and successes of her life.

This is a period of history about which I know very little so I enjoyed the insight The Shadow Queen provides. This is a period when knights and noblemen seemed to spend most of their time either preparing for war or engaged in battle. It was one way to keep them from squabbling and jostling for power and since every prisoner they captured could be ransomed, success on the battlefield was lucrative. The fate of their women folks was to be sit quietly at home caring for the children, sewing and praying.

Joan is strongly characterised but for me the most interesting character was the Prince of Wales. I’ve always had this impression of him as a ferociously brave military leader who won renown for his astonishing victories over the French at the Battles of Crécy and Poitiers, In The Shadow Queen, where he is generally referred to as Ned, he comes across as also a spendthrift and arrogant man who is so intent on enforcing his will on the people of Aquitaine that he forces them to seek support from their former ruler, the King of France. It’s Joan who sees the danger of her husband’s attitude but her sound counsel falls on deaf ears for once.

I thought the book could have been shorter without losing its impact but generally its blend of the personal and the political made it an enjoyable reading experience, especially for the glimpse it provided into a largely uknown episode in British history.

 

Footnotes

The BookThe Shadow Queen  was published in May 2017 by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins in e-book and hardback. I received a copy from the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

The author:  Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history. She now lives in the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales.

Why I read this book: Quite simply it was a chance to learn about a period of British history about which I knew next to nothing. The names of the Fair Maid of Kent and the Black Prince were familiar but I couldn’t have told you anything about the individuals themselves. I’m glad to have put some flesh on the bones now.

 

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I wouldn’t like to be drawn against Graeme Macrae Burnet in any game that requires participants to keep a straight face while lying through one’s teeth. He’d be far too good for me to spot if he was telling porkies.  Not that I know the man personally you understand – I’m basing my depiction of his character entirely on the subterfuge he concocts in his novel His Bloody Project. 

This is a book that is written to make you think it’s a true story. It’s subtitled “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae” for one thing and contains a preface declaring that these  documents relate to a murder trial that the author uncovered while researching his family history.  The  documents ‘found’ in the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness include a manuscript in “handwriting… admirably clear with only the most occasional crossings-out and false starts” about a triple murder.  Burnet keeps up the fiction that this is a ‘true’ story through the rest of the book, presenting it in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial. And so we get witness statements, a written account by Roderick Macrae, the 17-year-old crofter  accused of the murders, an extract from a (fictional) investigation by the (real) pioneering criminologist James Bruce Thomson and local newspaper accounts of the trial.

But this is neither a story about one of his ancestors nor a fictionalised account of a real incident. However, according to a newspaper interview with Burnet there is some grain of truth in His Bloody Project. In the novel, for example two of Roderick Macrae’s uncles die in a shipwreck – a similar accident befell two of Burnet’s own family around the same time as the novel is set and close to the location of the fictional tragedy. There actually was a triple murder committed some forty years earlier by a crofter just like Roderick Macrae but both these incidents only came to light after Burnet had finished the first draft of his novel.

This is one ingeniously plotted novel. We know from the early part of the book that Roderick is in prison accused of beating to death the local constable Lachlan Mackenzie who had waged a war of intimation against his father. There is no question that Roderick is the culprit – he was seen with blood on his hands and he confessed to his actions. In his testimony he says “I carried out these acts with the sole purpose of delivering from father from the tribulations he had lately suffered.” What we don’t know at the start of the book is who the other two victims are nor why he might have killed them. His former teacher describes him as an exceptionally intelligent boy who could have gone on to greater things but for his father’s insistence that he works on the land. Neighbours however describe him as a bit of an idiot, a lad who was always “wrong in the head.” Did he intend to kill or did he suffer a temporary loss of sanity, a form of moral insanity so that he is not responsible in law for his actions?  The prison doctor and a criminologist are brought in to give their opinions on the state of his mind, leading to some blackly funny dialogue about whether all murderers share common physical characteristics.

The book’s pretence at veracity is one of the pleasures of reading His Bloody Project. Along with that we have the presence of not just one, but several unreliable narrators to keep us wondering where truth lies. Add to the mix the fact Macrae brings into focus the hardships of life for poor crofting families in the Highlands of Scotland who have to scratch a living from impoverished soil, and you have a highly enjoyable reading experience. A minor niggle for me was the lucidity of Macrae’s testimony – he makes an apology at the outset for “the poverty of my vocabulary and rudeness of style’ and then proceeds to turn in some fluid and perfectly grammatical prose. Even the schoolteacher’s assessment of the boy’s superior intellect didn’t convince me that a boy from such a poor background with little formal education beyond a village school could write so coherently.  Overall it didn’t markedly spoil my enjoyment of what was in essence a well conceived and well executed novel that I highly recommend.

Footnotes

The Book: His Bloody Project was published in 2015 by the small independent publisher Saraband. It went on to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2016.  Though it was considered an outsider because it fell into the genre of crime fiction (which isn’t a genre the Booker judges tend to select), it beat off strong competition to get onto the shortlist.

The Author: Born and brought up in Kilmarnock, Graeme Macrae Burnet worked for several years as an English teacher in Prague, Bordeaux, Porto and London, before returning to Glasgow and working for eight years for various independent television companies. His first novel, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau (Contraband, 2014), received a New Writer’s Award from the Scottish Book Trust. His Bloody Project is his second novel. His third is currently in progress.

Why I read this book: The day the Booker longlist was published I noticed this book was available an an e-version at a ridiculously low price so I bought it intending to read it before the shortlist announcement. I started it but got the impression it would be one of those books that has crucial information at the beginning so you need to keep turning back – which I find impossible to do on an e-reader. I requested a hard copy instead from the library but it arrived when I was out of the country and then I didn’t have time to read it so back it went unopened. But clearly the fates were determined I would read this because in February my sister turns up to visit me in hospital with a paperback copy, declaring “you really should read this.” Who could argue with that? So third time lucky for Mr Burnet…

 

 

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

The discovery of skeletal remains under a public car park in Leicester a couple of years ago re-awakened interest in King Richard III, the man forever lodged in the public imagination as a murderous hunchback with withered arm.   Archaeological and forensic evidence of the skeleton revealed a spinal deformity but established unquestionably that both the withered arm and the hunchback were myths. What about that other accusation that Richard was a murderer? Did he actually have his two young nephews, the real heirs to the throne, killed in the Tower of London in order to clear the way for his own ascent to the throne?  Or is that an invention of Tudor-era historians keen to separate the new dynasty from the past?

Richard’s role and culpability has long been a subject of fascination but most of the debate took place in the narrow confines of historical academia. In 1951 however, the question became popularised with the publication of The Daughter of Time by the Scottish novelist Josephine Tey.

It’s rather an odd book; a mash-up of historical novel and detective story; in which a modern-day detective ‘investigates’ the crimes of which Richard has stood accused for centuries. All the investigation takes place from the confines of a hospital bed where Inspector Alan Grant (the central figure in Tey’s crime fiction series) lies flat on his back having broken his leg by falling through a trap door. He’s desperately bored. He knows every crack on the ceiling and has zero interest in the pile of books brought by well-meaning visitors. He perks up when his actress friend brings him a collection of portraits attached to historical controversies. After years in the police force Grant thinks he can tell a villain from an innocent just by their face so when his eye falls on a portrait of Richard III,  his curiosity is aroused. What he sees is not the face of a murderer but a man “used to great responsibility, and responsible in his authority. Someone too conscientious. A worrier; perhaps a perfectionist.” The more Grant reads about Richard, the more convinced he becomes that there is a mystery waiting to be uncovered. He quizzes hospital staff about their knowledge of the Princes in the Tower and reads whatever he can get his hands on – fortunately for him, one of his nurses has kept her old school history book.

All good detectives in fiction need a side kick to do the running around on their behalf, digging out the info from which the great brain will make his deductions. In The Daughter of Time the side kick role is allocated to Brent Carradine, a young American researcher at the British Museum. Together the pair read chronicles from Richard’s time and the Tudor era; delve into assessments by more contemporary historians and track down original documents. Grant dismisses the assessments of chroniclers like Thomas More (whose History of Richard III is the primary source for the conventional story of the murders) as “back-stair gossip and servants’ spying.” More after all was just five years old when Richard seized the throne so couldn’t possibly have written his account based on personal knowledge.

Nor does Grant have much faith in latter-day historians. “They see history like a peep show, with two-dimensional figures against a distant background” he tells his actress friend. Instead Grant relies on his ability to judge a man’s character by the cut of his jib and to spot the gaps in evidentiary documents – skills honed from his years at Scotland Yard. On the eve of Grant’s departure for home, he summarises the case for Richard’s defence and the case for seeing a wholly different culprit – his successor on the English throne, King Henry VII.

This is a novel that was immediately popular upon its publication. It took a subject seen by many as ‘dry’ and made it into a quest for justice and the truth.  It caused many readers to burrow in their attics for their dusty school history books and re-acquaint themselves with the fifteenth-century equivalent of Who’s Who. A radio program based on the book followed in 1952 and then a spate of  novels, plays, and biographies sympathetic to Richard throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

If Tey’s intent was to rehabilitate the reputation of a man best known as the villain of Shakespearian drama, she certainly succeeds in creating doubt about the veracity of that portrayal. But as a work of literature it has its faults. By necessity a lot of background information needs to be provided and explained so we get large chunks of narrative along these lines:

Do you know about Morton?

No

He was a lawyer turned churchman, and the greatest pluralist on record. He chose the Lancastrian side and stayed with it until it was made clear that Edward IV was home and dried. Then he made his peace with the York side and Edward made him Bishop of Ely. And vicar of God knows how many parishes besides. but after Richard’s accession he backed first the Woodvilles and then Henry Tudor and ended up with a cardinal’s hat….

Then we get multiple conversations between Grant and Carradine which go along the lines of

I’ll tell you something even odder. You know we thought that XYZ……… Well, it turns out that …….

What!

Yes you may well look startled.

Are you sure?

Quite sure.

Not exactly riveting dialogue is it?  I know a certain amount of exposition is required for the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the period or the key figures but Tey goes over-board on this. I didn’t feel I needed to have everything spelled out and it deadened what would otherwise be some fascinating insights into the machinations of the times. The shame is that it marred an otherwise fascinating book. My knowledge of the period isn’t deep enough to judge for myself whether it’s Henry we should consider to be the instigator of what happened more than 500 years ago. But Tey does make a persuasive case for re-evaluating Richard’s reputation. She’s also re-awakened my interest in the period – tonight I’ll be watching the BBC version of the Shakespeare’s play (the final episode in the Hollow Crown series). Then tomorrow I plan to head for the library hoping they might have a history of Richard’s reign.

Footnotes

The Book: The Daughter of Time was published in 1951, the year before the death of its author. In 1990 it was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers’ Association.

The Author: Jospehine Tey was one of the pen-names of Elizabeth MacKintosh, a teacher from Inverness, Scotland. She started publishing novels in 1929 under the name Gordon Daviot, using that pseudonym also for some historical plays. A Daughter of Time was her final novel.  She left her copyrights to the National Trust.

Why I read this: I tried reading another of Tey’s novels – Brat Farrar  – but found it rather dull so gave up. I found a copy of The Daughter of Time in a second hand shop at very low cost and since I’m a sucker for the Wars of the Roses period in history, my curiousity was awakened.  The 1951 Club, the latest in a series of events hosted by Simon of Stuck in a Book and Karen of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, gave me the impetus to take it out of the bookcase.

Black River by Louise Walsh

blackriverThis is a book set against the backdrop of the Aberfan disaster in Wales, UK in which 40 people, 116 of them young children lost their lives when a huge waste coal heap slid onto their school and their homes. I started reading this on the 50th anniversary of the disaster. As a former journalist and someone who lived close to Aberfan this was an event of personal interest.

The main character, Harry, is a local journalist who has to go to the scene and file reports. He is physically, mentally and emotionally affected by what he sees. He is aghast at the behaviour of journalists sent from the national newspapers in Fleet Street who seem oblivious to human suffering and just want to get their story.

Walsh partly bases the story on some documents which indicated that press intrusion was so bad that the government division in Wales was deeply concerned and wanted some action. Around it she tries to present a portrait of a journalist of the old fashioned kind and his reactions.

As deeply moving at this tragic event was in reality, Walsh singularly fails to make this a novel I could was able to finish. The narration is clunky, full of phrases that seem lifted from official reports rather than rendered in language that the characters would use in reality. Harry’s life as a reporter is unconvincing – I note from the acknowledgements that she had connections with several journalists from South Wales, one or two of whom would indeed have remembered Aberfan but I have grave doubts that they saw the book pre-publication. If they did they would have spotted a huge error in the opening page where, according to Walsh, London based journalists got to the site around the same time as Harry. They didn’t (the distance from London to this part of Wales would have taken them several hours while Harry was much closer so its unrealistic). Further fundamental errors are apparent – he misses his deadline to file one of the biggest stories at that time yet is never even reprimanded despite the fact that missing a deadline is a cardinal mistake for any journalist. And then, instead of focusing all his effort on this story over coming months, he goes chasing a much more inferior story about city officials banning a film of Ulysses.

i should have listed to my inner voice before buying this, the voice which says that authors who have never be a journalist rarely get it right in their portrayal of members of this profession. I could have struggled through if the writing had sparkled but it didn’t. In fact it was dreary, the kind of strained language that you often find coming out of introductory creative writing classes.

After three sessions reading this novel I decided it wasn’t worth any more investment of my time.

Clearing the review backlog: Three short reviews

Jason at We Need to Talk About Books hit on a great idea with his “books read but not reviewed” posts. Such a great idea that I’ve borrowed it to deal with a backlog of reviews that I never seem to be able to get through. I’ll start with which was the first year of this blog. Luckily I had a few notes scribbled on a document to help me recall the books.

cranfordCranford by Elizabeth Gaskell . This became a much talked about book when it was turned into a highly successful television series in the UK. Broadcast in three series from 2007, it featured some class actors like Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Imelda Staunton. The story is set in the early 1840s in the fictional village of Cranford in the county of Cheshire in North West England, and focuses mainly on the town’s single and widowed middle class female inhabitants who are comfortable with their traditional way of life and place great store in propriety and maintaining an appearance of gentility.

There is clearly an opportunity to reflect changes in the world around them but that never came across to me in the first few episodes I watched.  It felt too whimsical amd cosy for my tastes. The book, when  I got around to reading it left me with the same impression (just to be clear I read book one of what is  series in effect). I was missing the depth of social understanding that I’d found in Gaskell’s North and South (reviewed here)

womaninblack

Woman in Black by Susan Hill. The play of this book was one of my best theatre experiences of the late 1980s. It’s still doing the rounds so I won’t give any details away thet will spoil the surprise and shock. It’s far superior to the  later film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe by the way. The book upon which both versions were  based was published in 1983. It’s a relatively slim volume written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel about The Woman in Black is a 1983 horror novella by Susan Hill, written in the style of a traditional Gothic novel about a mysterious spectre that haunts a small English town, heralding the death of children. The suspense is handled well and it kept me engaged theiughout a red eyed flight when I couldn’t sleep. But I wouldn’t give it many marks for quality of writing. Susan Hill seemed to think stuffing the narrative with lots of adjectives  was the best way to conjure up the atmosphere. It didn’t. It just left me feeling irritated.

witchhunter

 

The Witch Hunter by Bernard Knight. This is part of his Crowner John series which revolves around the figure of a coroner based in Exeter, England in the twelfth century. I’ve read or listened to audio versions of about half of them and they are all excellent at conjuring up the spirit of those times. I dont recall the plots usually, preferring the way Bernard Knight in eyes the uncertainties of life in those times, the struggles of a monarch trying to extort his power across the whole country in the face of opposition by the powerful barons and vested interests. Knight shows the coroner as a man of principle, determined to fulfill the responsibilities for this newly established role even if thet means he comes head to head with the county sheriff who happen so be his brother in law. In The Witch Hunter he has to contend with a community that views the death  of a prominent burgess as a signof witchcraft. Personal interests intervene when the coroners beloved mistress Nesta is implicated. I’m surprised this series doesn’t have more visibility because it’s highly readable. I’ve posted about the series in general here.

 

Treachery by S. J Parris [book review]

Have I been sleeping for the past five years? I can’t think of any other reason why I’ve been so totally oblivious to thTreacherye series of historical thrillers by S. J Parris that feature a 16th century heretic philosopher and spy called Giordano Bruno. Apparently Bruno did exist – (if you’re ever in Rome go and look out his statue in the Campo de Fiori). He abandoned his life as a monk, swapping cloisters in Italy for the fringes of the English court where he became friends with the poet Sir Philip Sidney and part of the ring of spies employed by the Queen’s closest advisor Francis Walsingham. This pair seem unlikely heroes but since they made their appearance in 2010 they’ve featured in five novels and a novella all of which have earned critical praise and avid readers.

Treachery is book number four. It transports us to Plymouth in 1585 where St Francis Drake is about to embark on a voyage to the New World. There is a lot riding on this voyage, not least the chances of a fortune for the travellers and their backers, and of course the Queen who needs to bolster her coffers in case the Spanish launch an invasion attack. But the voyage may be doomed before it ever sets sail. A sailor is found dead in his cabin and Drake needs to keep the suggestion of foul play from reaching the ears of his crew. He also suspects the killer isn’t yet done. “If I am right, there will be more deaths. Ending with my own, if he is not stopped,” says Drake.

Fortunately Sidney and Bruno happen to be in the city at the time, having been despatched to wait for a Portuguese royal exile and escort him safely to London. Who better to sort through the cast of suspects and manoeuvre their way among prostitutes, scholars, booksellers, apothecaries and priests to uncover the truth?

There is plenty to delight in this novel. As the amateur detectives bustle through inns, whorehouses, wharfs in search of a murderer they climb trees, leap out of windows and scale ladders to escape death. It’s a fast and furious narrative that kept me turning the pages. Amid the drama there are some fascinating period details   (though unlike many an author of historical fiction Parris doesn’t bash you on the forehead with all her research material.  Instead we get gems such as the poisonous effect of nutmeg (go easy on you next cake making session or you might get some unexpected results) and moments of humour. She knows that many readers will be familiar with the historical background so there’s little need to waste time on explanations; she can get straight on with the action.

Comparison with the C.J Sansom series featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake is inevitable. Both turn on impossible feats of strength and endurance; both feature leading men whose personal beliefs put their own lives in peril but Parris is a better writer  than Shardlake so has the edge for me. A gripping and fun read, Treachery is the perfect book to take on a long flight or to the poolside.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

paying_guestsThough I like to support authors from my home country of Wales, Sarah Waters is one writer that hasn’t grabbed me as yet. I was put off her first novel Tipping the Velvet when I learned  the central character is a music hall star (I’m a straight drama girl and shudder at the prospect of any stage performances involving music). I did give Fingersmith a go but found it rather dull. With that poor track record you might well wonder how I came to end up reading her most recent novel The Paying Guests? The answer is quite simple – my mother who pressed it upon me after her reading group raved about it. Our tastes rarely coincide so I opened it without a great deal of enthusiasm and probably wouldn’t have bothered except for the fact it’s set in 1920s Britain which is a period that fascinates me.

This is a time when, as a consequence of the Great War, the old constraints of gender and class began to break apart.  Waters depicts this through a mother and daughter who, robbed of their men folk, find it increasingly difficult to maintain the standards they had enjoyed as members of a moderately wealthy genteel strata of society. Widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances are driven by economic necessity to find paying tenants (they are far too refined to call them lodgers) for rooms in their large sprawling villa in the Camberwell district of London. The idea is anathema to Mrs Wray’s middle-class sensibilities  but with her husband gone and her sons dead, there is little choice. The house is crumbling around them, Frances tries to wages a daily war against grime and dust but it’s more than she can manage alone and they simply cannot afford to pay for a servant.

Frances does have her moments of doubt when the Barbers first move in.

The thought that all these items were about to be brought not the home – and that this couple who were not quite the couple she remembered, who were younger and brasher who were going to bring them and set them out and make their own home, brashly, among them – the thought brought on a flutter of panic. What on earth had she done? She felt as thought she was opening the house to thieves and invaders.

At first Len and Lilian Barber do little to disturb the household other than creating awkward little moments when they have to go through the kitchen to use the outside loo or when Frances is discovered on her knees scrubbing at the hallway tiles, looking every inch a charwoman instead of a well-bred and educated woman.  Len Barber is an unpleasant figure with his leering behavour, his boorish attitude towards his wife and his regular boasts about his burdgeoning career in the insurance business. His wife ‘Lil’ is a vivacious creature who horrifies Mrs Wray by sleeping until late, using all the hot water for her bath and then floating about in a brightly coloured kimono. But Frances slowly finds herself drawn to Lilian and her liberated, brash ways. An affair ensues with disastrous consequences. As the two women try to resolve the situation they discover their standards of decency, loyalty and courage dissolve in the face of their fear of discovery.

Did I enjoy The Paying Guests?

Yes, in part. The first part that is.

This is the part which establishes the characters and leads to the torrid affair between Frances and Lilian. It’s full of convincing detail about the stultifying nature of Frances’ life from which Lilian provides a liberation. A frequenter of political meetings in the past, the intellectual side of her life has become closed in by the walls and furniture of the house she shares with a mother who cannot let go of the past.  The  ‘scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood…the dinner gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years’ become symbols of the confinement she feels within the house. Where once she had enjoyed a deep and loving relationship with another woman, now her only escape is the occasional bus trip to visit a friend in another part of the city.  Such is her life until the day Lilian walks through her door. With her brash outlook on life, her scissors, curling tongs and dressmaker’s eye, Lilian reawakens the old Frances, transforming her physically and emotionally.

Waters dramatises with considerable effect the idea that women in this period began to consider how to take control of their destiny and to reshape their lives in a new social order. If only this had continued to be the substance of the second half of the book. Unfortunately Waters changes tack and instead of a novel about relationships and social change we get more of a thriller with a death, a police investigation and a courtroom drama.  This drags on interminably with ever more twists and turns and plenty of tears and recriminations. Frances’ passion and pain is entirely believable but since we don’t have access to Lilian’s inner voice, the exploration of her character is rather lacking in substance.

Not a dud by any means but I could have done with more fizz and sparkle in the second half.

Sovereign by C. J Sansom: review

sovereignSovereign is the third title in a series relating the escapades of Matthew Shardlake, a 16th-century lawyer afflicted by a hunched back but blessed with an astute mind. He needs all his wits about him if he is to keep his head on his shoulders amid the dangerous forces of the court of Henry VIII. Plenty of other people have already lost theirs as a result of plotting against the King. Not a pleasant prospect but preferable to the fate meted out to some conspirators who were tortured then hung, drawn and quartered or dangled in chains from the castle ramparts until they died, ever so slowly. 

It’s the rotting body parts of these failed conspirators that greet Shardlake when he arrives in the city of York. He’s there with his sidekick Barak to make sure one conspirator is kept in good shape until he can be taken to London for an appointment with the king’s skilful torturers. The city is in turmoil as it awaits the arrival of Henry, and his young wife Catherine (wife number five). The King is undertaking a royal progress to bring the rebellious north to heel and impress upon them just who is in charge of the realm. His visit is supposed to quell all possibilities of another insurrection but Shardlake discovered there is another plot afoot among a faction who disputes the King’s claim to the throne.

The story involves considerable manoeuvring as Shardlake tries to keep the prisoner safe,  discover the identity of a murderer and find out who is behind the conspiracy all the while trying to avoid getting himself killed. It’s all good fun and very readable even if sometimes improbable that a man with Shardlake’s affliction has the physical stamina he is called upon to exert.

The real beauty of Sovereign, as with all the others I’ve read in the series, is the level of authenticity C. J Sansom brings to his narrative. This is a warts and all version of Tudor England; a country where northerners view those from the south with deep suspicion and hostility and the great edifices of the Catholic Church are torn down to be recycled as manor houses for those looking to increase their wealth and power base.

Sansom gives us fascinating insight into the exhaustive preparations needed to support the King on his travel through the land. It took an army of courtiers, soldiers, cooks, labourers and clerics to get the entourage from A to B and fed, watered and bedded each night. But those problems are as nothing compared to the challenge of dealing with basic bodily needs as one official confides to Shardlake.

‘Everywhere we stop vast pits have to be dug. With three thousand people, five thousand great horses you may imagine?’

‘Cannot the local people use the dung for manure?’

‘There was far more than they need. And the stink, you can imagine… Even with the pits, all the roads from London to Hull is littered with rubbish. It has been a nightmare.’

Far from a regal procession this is the progress of a force that spreads disease in its wake, personified in the figure of the King himself.  The year is 1541 and Henry is no longer the upright athletic figure of his youth.  Sansom makes us see the huge bulk of a man with “red jowly face, fringe of reddish grey bead, a pursed little mouth under a commanding beak of a nose and small, deep,set eyes.” We hear his voice which humiliates and humbles his subjects. We smell the stench of decaying flesh that oozes from his suppurating ulcerated legs and cringe at the image of him bedding his very young, fragile new bride.

The episode in which the crookbacked lawyer comes face to face with the King, is a tremendous set piece in which Sansom’s talent for period detail becomes clear. His Shardlake novels are rigorously researched but it seems none more so than with Sovereign. Sansom was so frustrated by the differences in historians’  accounts of the Royal Progress of 1541 that he wrote his own academic paper on the subject. The product of this is an episode which reflects the theatricalities of which Henry was enamoured as well as the mercurial side of his character.

This is a novel in which its easy to lose yourself in the world of sixteenth century politics and life. Just be glad that you can easily escape the reality of the smells, the basic bathroom facilities and the dangers to your head simply by closing the book.

End Notes

Sovereign is published in the UK by Pan.

My reviews of other novels in the series are via these links:

Dissolution (book number 1)

Dark Fire (book number 2)

Lamentation (book number 4)

 

 

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