Category Archives: historical fiction
This 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.
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.
Cranford 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).
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.
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.
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 the 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.
Though 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 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.
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)
Another storm was predicted to hit the UK today and tomorrow which is not good news at any time but esp ecially disconcerting when you have to get to the airport. Hope the Met Office gets the forecast wrong… Talking of the Met Office it seems ever since they embarked on their “name the storm” project last autumn, we seem to have had them more frequently. We started with Abigail, now we’re up to Henry. At this rate we’ll have exhausted the alphabet before year end.
I just managed to finish Look at Me by Jennifer Egan on my last night at home for a few weeks. I started reading this in November but put it on the back burner so I could attend to a few other commitments but I was determined not to let it run into a third month. I wasn’t sure I would take to it but it grew on me the more I saw how richly layered it was in its treatment of the theme of identity. So here I am on the first of the month with a new book to open. And I can’t decide which it will be. I have with me Sovereign by C.J Sansom which is the third in his series about the lawyer turned detective Matthew Shardlake who has to navigate the political turmoil of the Tudor era. I also have Winifred Holtby’s most famous work, South Riding, which is a portrait of a Yorkshire community dealing with the effect of the Depression. Both have the advantage of being long enough to sustain me through an eight hour flight. I suspect the decision will be a sour of the moment thing just before my bag goes through check in. Of course if the ultimate choice doesn’t work out I have plenty of Net Galley titles on my e reader including the latest Helen Dunmore novel Exposure. I wasn’t impressed with the on,y other title I read by her, The Great Coat, but since that wasnt the genre she normally inhabits I thoughts she deserved another try.
On my car journey up to the airport I listened to the final chapters of The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid. It’s not one that features any of her detective creations but is a stand alone thriller about the abud toon of a child from an airport while in the care of his adopted mother Stephanie Harker. She is a ghost writer who compiles the autographies of celebrities. Her relationship with the boys real mother Scarlett Higgins, a foul-mouthed reality TV star known to the nation as the Scarlett Harlot, began on a professional level but soon lurched towards the personal. To discover who addicted the boy, Harker has to delve into the past. This is the first time I’ve experienced fed Val McDermid which is odd given how prolific and highly respected she is. I suspect this is not one of her best, though it was good enough to get me through the drive even if I did find the actress playing Harker had that very irritating habit of the upward inflection at the end of every sentence.
The hotel tv channels didn’t offer too much in the way of entertainment tonight – practically every channel had a tribute to Terry Wogan and all more or less said the same thing. The best option was a dramatisation of the relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth 1 told through through the correspondance they maintained for about two decades. It did a pretty fair job of showing the rivalry between these two and how cunning Elizabeth was towards her cousin.
A foul putrid stench poured into the yard — so thick and strong we all cried out as one, turning our faces away. It was the festering, heavy stink of disease, of rotting, infected bodies, of men forced to piss and shit and sweat together in an airless cell. There was no escape from it…
If you got into debt in eighteenth century London, your fate was a spell in the squalid, disease ridden Marshalsea prison. Survival was possible if you could get a friend or relative to pay for your lodging and food. With money you could enjoy a few comforts: half-way decent rooms; meals from the prison’s chop house, drinks in the bar and ready access to the brothel’s services. Without money you would end up in the prison’s most fetid, teeming section, the “Common Side” likely to die from starvation or goal fever.
This is the fate awaiting Tom Hawkins, the protagonist of Antonia Hodgson’s debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea. Tom is the rakish son of a preacher, a young man with incorrigible liking for gambling, drinking and womanising. His charmed life comes to an end when he’s attacked in a dark alley and all his money is stolen leaving him unable to pay his debts.
His first few hours in the prison are enough to terrify him. This is a savage place ruled over by a ruthless governor and his equally brutal henchmen who enjoy nothing so much as chaining prisoners to corpses. But the recent, unexplained death of another debtor Captain Roberts, whose ghostly figure has been seen to disappear through walls, has made the inhabitants more agitated than usual. The finger of suspicion falls on Tom’s room mate, Samuel Fleet, know throughout the prison as The Devil. Tom’s choice becomes clear: he has a few days in which to find the murderer or become the prison’s next victim.
Hodgson’s race-against-time narrative is bursting with pace and atmosphere. It’s set firmly in the period of 1727 but the characters’ dialogue never feels strained by over reliance on 18th century terminology and speech patterns to make us believe in their world. The notes at the back of my edition make it evident this is a meticulously-researched story, which for me, amplified the horror of the prison world it portrayed. This is a place where people are callously manipulated when they are already in the depths of despair, and where any vestiges of dignity and goodness struggle to survive in the face of a system which is essentially inhuman. Amid all the trials and misfortunes he experiences himself, it is this inhumanity that Tom finds intolerable:
As we walked toward the prison block a sudden scream rent the air. …
‘God Have Mercy”
In all my life I had never heard such a desperate sound. The man cried out again, joined by another voice and another — a hundred or more shouting their grief up into the night sky. I caught a few distinct voices
‘Spare me , Lord! Save us. Oh God Save Us’
But the rest was just a heart-shredding din, that seemed to shake the very walls of the prison — the lamentation of souls trapped in a hell on earth.
In short, The Devil in the Marshalsea is a gripping story that propels you forward relentlessly towards an ending that, while wasn’t a complete surprise to me, was nevertheless highly satisfying. It also neatly sets Hodgson up for a sequel (one that’s just been published in fact.)
When you see the name of King Henry VIII, what’s the image that comes to your mind? One in which the monarch has the physique and appearance of a model (as portrayed by Jonathan Rhys in the TV series The Tudors)?
Or one of an athletic king with steely eyes as played by Damien Lewis in the BBC television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? Or the way that Henry himself wanted to be portrayed; A man of authority who, even when he’s not kitted out in full royal regalia exudes power. One of the most famous of contemporary portraits shows him directly facing the viewer, legs firmly planted apart and arms akimbo to emphasise his powerful physique. The message is clear: don’t even think of messing around with me.
In C.J Sansom’s historical series featuring a ‘detective’ lawyer, Shardlake, the man of law has learned over the years to fear his encounters with the King and the powerful men who surround him. Lamentation, the latest episode in the series, sees Shardlake once again become embroiled in the kind of political intrigue that could easily cost him his head. This time it’s the King’s wife Katherine who needs his help when a book of spiritual reflections she has written is stolen from her bedroom. In the religious turmoil of the 1540s, this book could incite even further discord in the land if it is published. Katherine’s own safety as risk. For the King;s own wife to write such a text without his knowledge could be considered as treason. Shardlake has a soft spot for the queen so accepts her plea to find the book before the King discovers what’s happened.
What ensues is a romp around London, from its leafy Inns of Court and the splendour of its royal palaces to the seedy streets of the poorer quarters as Shardlake tries to discover who is behind the theft and why. It brings him into personal danger with sword fights and a spell in the dreaded dungeons of The Tower. It’s all very entertaining if somewhat improbable on many occasions —although Shardlake suffers from his physical deformity and often refers to his aching back, the man still seems to have an extraordinary level of stamina, always dashing about on horse or foot for hours.
That’s really a minor point in a novel that otherwise exudes authenticity. Sansom’s evocation of the period always feels authoritative and sure (he even provides extensive notes at the back of the book to substantiate his interpretation.) In Lamentation he plunges us into a time when the King’s health is a matter for concern though he and his courtiers go to great lengths to keep up a pretence in his public engagements that all is well. Shardlake however stumbles upon some scenes within the inner sanctum of the palace that show the extent to which this once powerful man has declined. In a quiet courtyard he sees the King propped up by two helpers shuffle along the path:
The man I saw now was the very wreck of a human being. His huge legs, made larger still by swathes of bandages, were splayed out like a gigantic child’s as he took each slow and painful step. Every movement sent his immense body wobbling and juddering beneath his caftan. His face was great mess of fat, the little mouth and tiny eyes almost hidden in its folds, the once beaky nose full and fleshy.
Later he sees Henry winched up to his stateroom, his immense body and folds of fat strapped into a wheelchair.
As shocked as Shardlake is, he knows well that to merely comment on the King’s health let alone reveal the truth, would be treasonable.
This is an age where lips must be kept shut if you fear for your life. One unguarded comment could lead to a charge of heresy. The tone is set within the first few pages of the novel where Shardlake is despatched, reluctantly to witness the burning alive of a heretic.
There was a smell of smoke around Smithfield now as well as the stink of the crowd and of something else, familiar from the kitchen: the smell of roasting meat. Against my will I looked again at the stakes. The flames had reached higher: the victims lower bodies were blackened, white bone showing through here and there. their upper parts red with blood as the flames licked at them.
Shardlake must navigate this atmosphere of fear and contend with the King’s circle of unscrupulous advisers to achieve his mission. By the end he yearns for a quieter life in which he becomes a lawyer in a provincial town far from the corruption of the capital and the machinations of the court. But Shardlake is ever a sucker for the ladies and how can he resist when he is offered a new role, as adviser to the Princess Elizabeth. And thus, very neatly, Sansom sets us up for another chapter in Shardlake’s life and – thankfully – a few more novels to look forward to reading.
My reviews of other novels within the series can be found via the links below.
Anyone who was left begging for more when they reached the end of Bring up the Bodies, is in for a lengthy wait before they’ll be able to feast on the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. In an interview for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) she revealed that she won’t finish writing the book until late in 2016 or even middle of 2017.
Apparently her involvement as consultant for the stage production of the Man Booker-prize winning Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies have distracted her a little though she was able to use cast members as sounding boards for some of her plot ideas. When her work on the Broadway version comes to an end this summer she’ll be taking a holiday and then planning to get back to writing in earnest. it will take her between 18 months and a year to finish the book.
Until then we’ll have to be satisfied with the few crumbs of information she’s divulged. We now know the following about Part 3:
- It’s called The Mirror and the Light
- It features the short reign of Jane Seymour and the long awaited birth of a male heir.
- We will experience King Henry’s increasingly erratic behaviour.
- The book marks the demise of Thomas Cromwell and his disgrace
Those titbits are all we’re going to get for some time it seems but they have whetted my appetite even more. I know what’s going on my Christmas wish list for 2016.
Wolf Hall and
It was hard to miss Jessie Burton’s debut novel The Miniaturist last year. Readers were so entranced by her tale of strange secrets behind the door of a sixteenth century Amsterdam house, they bought more than 100,000 copies (making it one of the fastest selling books in hard back format). It was named as book of the year in the National Book Awards, by The Observer and also the Waterstones’ book chain. Burton herself was named as National Book Awards New Writer of the Year 2014.
If you’ve yet to buy or borrow this book or you have it lingering on the bookshelf, let me see if I can persuade you to delay no longer.
1. It’s a feast for the eyes. Just the act of picking up this book and opening it will remind you that reading is as much a tactile and sensory experience as it is a cerebral one. In hardback format the novel is an object of beauty. The UK cover (shown above) has a glorious representation of an ornate doll’s house of the kind given as a wedding gift to the novel’s principal character, eighteen year old Nella Oortman. The model of the house and all its contents including Nella’s parakeet in a cage, were constructed by hand by Andersen M Studio, a specialist company in London (you can watch a short video of the project ). The level of detail is astonishing. Adding to the whole experience, cover designer Katie Tooke edged all the pages in the same tone of blue used for the costumed figures. Just look at the picture of Burton at a-book signing to see how gorgeous this looks).
2. It will convince you to visit Amsterdam. Or, if you’ve been previously, to make a return trip. Burton brings the city so vividly to life that you’ll feel you absolutely have to take a boat along the Herengracht Canal where Nella lives. In the Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth century this was the premiere address in the city, the place where the richest merchants and most influential inhabitants built their mansions with inner gardens and coach houses. Today it’s a World Heritage location though on the day Nella arrives at her new home, it wasn’t looking its best. Nevertheless it still makes an impression on the young girl from the countryside.
Today the wide stretch is brown and workaday. Looming above the sludge-coloured canal, the houses are a phenomenon. Admiring their own symmetry on the water, they are stately and beautiful, jewels set within the city’s pride. Abpvetheir rooftops, Natue is doing her best to keep up and clouds in colours of saffron and apricot echo the spoils of the glorious republic.
3. You’ll yearn for a olie-koeck. These are sweetened dough balls fried in hog’s fat which might not sound too good until you realise that they are in effect a kind of doughnut.
“…the fried crust breaks apart under Nella’s teeth, releasing the perfect blnd of almond, ginger, clove and apple.”
There are many scenes involving cooking in this novel, acting as a device for Nella to probe her housemaid and cook for info about her mysterious new husband. Amsterdam being a Calvinist city at the time means the residents tend to be ultra conservative in public, dressed in plain wool garments and eating a lot of cabbage and onions. But in the privacy of their homes they give into their sweet tooth with sugar coated doughnuts and marzipan.
4. Best to read it before you see it. If ever a book was made for the screen, this is it. This week the publishers Picador announced that a London based company has taken out an option to create a tv series based on Burton’s novels. They’ll have plenty of material to work with, from some set pieces like a court trial, a feast and a drowning to several scenes in which Nella, intent on discovering the identity of a mysterious miniature maker, gets out into the streets of Amsterdam to discover the source of its wealth.
She climbed … past bolts of Coromandel and Bengal silk, cloves, mace and nutmeg in crates marked Molucca, pepper labelled from Malabar, peels of Ceylonese cinnamon… Past Delft plates, casks of wine…, boxes of vermilion and cochineal, mercury for mirrors and the syphilis, Persian trinkets cast in gold and silver… Here is real life, she thinks, out of breath and giddy. Here is where true adventures come to land.
5. It’s simply a good story. A number of reviewers have commented that they found the book implausible in part and the writing style rather saggy on occasion. Admittedly Burton could work a bit harder on her similes but she still delivered some finely crafted passages and a story that is so well constructed it keeps you wanting to read on, and on and on. At times it reminded me of Tracy Chevalier’s work. To call this a page turner would be unfair because I always associate that descriptor with fast paced crime fiction and while Burton’s novel does contain a mystery, the underlying themes of contradictory attitudes to women, sexuality and to the outsider are far more interesting than whether Nella finds the answers she seeks.