Category Archives: historical fiction
When you read Pure by Andrew Miller, it might be wise to have a strongly scented candle by your side. For this is a book which evokes stench and decay so powerfully I was convinced I could smell it on my clothes every time I opened the book.
Pure is set in Paris in 1785. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, a young, ambitious engineer, arrives at the palace of Versailles hoping to get a Ministerial commission that will help him make a mark on the world.
False Dreams of Utopia
He “dreams of building utopias where the church and its superstitions will be replaced by schools run by men like himself.” Instead, the task he is handed is not one of construction but of demolition.
In the Rue de Saint Innocents stands the oldest cemetery in Paris. More than 50,000 victims of bubonic plague were reputedly buried here in one day. The subterranean wall separating the living from the dead has collapsed and the bones and decaying flesh have released a miasma which fouls the air, taints the food and even the breath of those who live within its shadow.
It takes a year for Barratte and his team of miners to open the graves and clear away the past. It’s a job which almost costs Baratte his life as the cemetery becomes a kind of hell of burning fires and walls of bones and skulls. Few of those involved in the enterprise emerge unscathed physically or mentally. When they began they imagined they were engaged in a noble cause, building the foundations of a better future in which their endeavours would be marked for posterity.
“They will name squares after us ……..the men who purified Paris,” declares the foreman of works. But as the graves are emptied and the cemetery’s wild flowers wither, so the vitality drains out of the workers. Tobacco, alcohol, weekly visits by prostitutes – nothing can distract the team of miners from the sense of loss. ‘I had some good in me once’ one observes bleakly.
Baratte too undergoes a transformation. The naïve young man is easy prey when he first arrives in the city. It takes little to persuade him to exchange his sensible brown suit for one of pistachio green silk or to join a group of drunken vandals who move about the city under cover of night painting obscenities about Queen Marie Antoinette. But it is not long before he finds he cannot sleep without a sedative and his ideals and belief in the power of reason are destroyed.
The cleansing of the cemetery is an extended metaphor for the cleansing that we as readers know these citizens will experience shortly, although on a significantly bigger scale. Andrew Miller provides plenty of symbolic references to the French Revolution, including naming one of characters Dr Guillotin and including dialogue that can easily be read on two levels. Take this example, from Baratte’s first meeting with the Ministerial aide, who gives him his commission:
It is poisoning the city. Left long enough, it may poison not just local shopkeepers but the king himself. The king and his ministers.
Yes, my lord.
It is to be removed.
Destroyed. Church and cemetery. The place is to be made sweet again. Use fire, use brimstone. Use whatever you need to get rid of it.
“Flawless Historical Fiction”
Pure is Andrew Miller’s sixth novel and it won him the 2011 Costa Book of the Year award. The judges praised it as a “structurally and stylistically flawless historical novel.” I’m not going to argue with that assessment.
Miller avoids the mistake made by so many historical fiction authors who load up their narrative with too much info gleaned from research. What we get in Pure is plenty of detail about clothes, food and daily domestic life of the period but it’s seamlessly woven into the narrative. Pure is so magnificently atmospheric it reminded me at times of the early scenes in Patrick Sushkind’s Perfume,
But then we get the additional layering of the parallel between the hell of the graveyard and the hell that is to follow in the Revolution. Ultimately there is a sense of optimism at the end where flowers once more bloom again in the now empty cemetery and sunlight filters through the broken roof of the church to illuminate the darkness.
Pure By Andrew Miller: Footnotes
Andrew Miller gained his MA in creative writing through the prestigious programme at the University of East Anglia. He went on to complete a PhD in critical and creative writing at Lancaster University.
He has written eight books, all published by Sceptre, the imprint of Hodder and Stoughton, His first novel, Ingenious Pain, published in 1997 went on to win three awards – The James Tait Black Memorial Prize, The Grinzane Cavour Prize in Italy and The International Dublin Literary Award. Pure won the Costa Prize Novel of the Year. His most recent novel Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (see my review) won the Walter Scott Prize.
- Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018, Sceptre)
- The Crossing (2015, Sceptre)
- Pure (2011, Sceptre)
- One Morning Like a Bird (2008, Sceptre)
- The Optimists (2005, Sceptre)
- Oxygen (2001, Sceptre)
- Casanova (1998, Sceptre)
- Ingenious Pain (1997, Sceptre)
This review was posted originally in 2013. This is an updated version incorporating background info about the author and improving readability by shortening the paragraphs.
Drive to the far west of Wales and you’ll eventually get to the Teifi valley, officially designated as an area of “Outstanding Natural Beauty”.
In the nineteenth century, this place of rolling hills, sparkling streams and grazing sheep was anything but idyllic.
The middle of the century saw a period of rural unrest as tenant farmers – often dressed as women and with blackened faces – rose up in protest over rising rents for farmland at a time of falling prices for sheep and cattle.
They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’, taking for inspiration a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them.’
The Rebecca rioters vented their anger against toll gates which they viewed as the manifestation of high taxes. They also enacted retribution against members of the community felt to have transgressed its expected standards of behaviour, using the tradition of the Ceffyl Pren (“wooden horse”) in which offenders would be paraded around their neighbourhood tied to a wooden frame.
The time of the Rebecca Riots provides a background for None so Blind, the first of the Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries, a historical mystery series by Aiis Hawkins.
It begins with an unnamed narrator who is a secret witness to an event, the consequences of which will not become apparent until seven years later when a set of bones are uncovered beneath a fallen tree.
Harry Probert-Lloyd, son of the local squire and county magistrate, believes they are the remains of a servant girl he loved and was forced to abandon. When an inquest delivers a verdict of accidental death, he determines to seek out the truth for himself. His quest brings him into conflict not only with his father but with people who were once Rebecca rioters.
Harry’s training as a lawyer helps him penetrate half truths and lies. He has one significant problem however: his sight is failing and he is slowly going blind. He enlists the services of a law clerk, John Davies, to be his “eyes”.
We’ve become accustomed in recent years to fictional ‘detective’ figures whose characters are flawed in some regard. Harry’s blindness is considerably more than a mere literary trick to give him more ‘character’. It changes how people react to him and how he has to conduct his investigation, making him far more acutely aware of nuances and gaps in what people tell him.
… I had not appreciated just how much of what we say is dictated by what we observe; a look of embarrassment causing a change of topic, a flush of enthusiasm and a bright eye egging one on … confusion prompting a clearer explanation…
It also becomes central to Harry’s relationship with John Davies. They begin as employer and hired servant but evolve into friends whose mutual desire for justice and the truth enable them to cross the divide between their respective status in society. As they warmed to each other (despite some misunderstandings at times) I found myself equally warming towards this pair.
The plot is well constructed and the feelings of guilt experienced by Probert-Jones that he didn’t do more to help his former girlfriend, give the novel some emotional depth. But the real strengths of None so Blind lie in its historical context of the Rebecca Riots. I knew of the riots through history lessons in school. They were always portrayed as a kind of working class hero campaigners, the poor man willing to stand up and say “no more” .
It was fascinating to learn through None so Blind that the rioters became a force feared by the very people they had set out to aid. As Harry’s father explains, farmers took to hiding in their crops to avoid being dragooned by the rioters into joining their cause. Whatever genuine grievance compelled the rioters to take up their weapons, was lost as the protest gained momentum. Even Harry recognises that:
… once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately, with results that are usually far from quaint.
None so Blind has a lot to say about justice, responsibility and the treatment of the poor. It does so in a way that was entertaining and engaging. The dynamics between Harry and John work well and the use of an unidentified narrator adds a further level of mystery to a tale which contains many secrets. The historical background was also well managed – Alis Hawkins avoids the mistake (unforgivable in my eyes) of many a writer who, having done their research, feel compelled to include it within the text. Instead we get an introductory note about law and order, and the roles of police and coroners in nineteenth century west Wales, plus a lengthy explanation about the Rebecca Riots.
This weaving of history and fiction reminded me of two other series I’ve enjoyed in the past: the highly successful series by C. J Sansom set in Tudor England that features the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake and the series by Bernard Knight about a coroner in King Richard’s reign. Maybe the Harry Probert-Lloyd series will become another of my favourite series.
About the Author
Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.
Her first novel, Testament, was published in 2008 by Macmillan and was translated into several languages. It has recently been acquired for reissue, along with her medieval trilogy of psychological thrillers, by Sapere Books and will appear, with the first two in the trilogy, later in 2019.
About the Book
None So Blind, published in 2017, is the first in a series featuring Harry Probert-Lloyd. The second episode entitled In Two Minds is due out in May from The Dome Press.
Now We Shall be Entirely Free is an atmospheric adventure tale, set at the height of the Napoleonic wars, that won me over right from the opening page.
It begins with an unconscious man travelling by coach through a rain-drenched English countryside. He is Captain John Lacroix, son of a wealthy Somerset family, who has returned home from a disastrous campaign against Napoleon’s forces in Spain. He’d set off for the war full of optimism and splendidly equipped with new (and expensive) leather boots, a pelisse with fur-lined collar and numerous shirts, waistcoats and neckties.
He returns in borrowed and patched clothes, his feet bound with strips of cloth and his hearing damaged. He is a broken man.
Like the clothes he had arrived in, the pack was not his own. … this one had the look of something raked out of the fire. Scorched, filthy. Black with tar or grease, the world’s filth.
He’s nursed from the brink of death by his housekeeper. But he is clearly a man changed physically and mentally by his experience of war. It’s not until much later in the novel that we discover the cause of his breakdown: an atrocity committed in a quiet mountain village while the British army was in retreat.
When a fellow officer turns up at the house with instructions for John to return to his return, he flees to Scotland. What he doesn’t know is that some time earlier in Spain a military committee held to inquire into the atrocity decided that someone must be held responsible. They determine Lacroix is that someone. So they despatch a British officer called Calley to find and kill him. .
Lacroix’s escape and Calley’s pursuit sets up the dramatic focus of the novel. Will the regiment catch up with Lacroix before Calley? How long can Lacroix survive on his own wits (the signs are not good because almost as soon as he sets foot in Scotland he is robbed and beaten). The suspense is maintained throughout by alternating Lacroix’s narrative with that of Calley and his companion Medina, a Spanish officer.
Miller excels at creating atmosphere and characters. Calley is the most interesting. He’s a man entirely devoid of principles. A man on a mission to kill. He thinks nothing of torturing and beating up the people he believes have information that will help him track down his quarry. He tells one of his victims:
You want to know who I am? I’ll tell you who I am. I am the war. Yes? And today the war has come to you. It has come right into your house and struck you down.
But in one moment of candour he tells how he learned from an early age how to take care of himself. Working as a piecer in a cotton mill as a child, he would crawl underneath the machines to clean them. One slip and he’d lose his fingers or have his arm ripped off.
While Now We Shall be Entirely Free is certainly an adventure story, there is an element of romance. When Lacroix hides out in the Scottish Hebrides he encounters the Fender siblings, a small community of free thinkers. Lacroix is enthralled by one of the sisters, Emily, accompanying her to Glasgow for a highly risky operation she hopes will restore her failing sight. Miller fortunately spares us some of the more gruesome details of the procedure.
The budding romance, which is quite touching in its gentleness and innocence provides a lovely counter to the darkness of the war and the theme of culpability. Early on in the novel a shadowy officer involved in the military query observes that “No ancient and honourable institution is without its ancient and honourable crimes.” Lacroix himself is pushed by the Fenders, who do not believe in violence, to question his motives for becoming a soldier. He has to admit he had thought more about the uniform than the fact he would be expected to kill.
If he can evade Calley, will his love for Emily enable Lacroix to put aside his memories of the war? The ending of the novel is deliciously ambivalent. I’m not going to spoil other readers’ enjoyment by revealing the details.
Why I read this book
I loved an earlier novel by Andrew Miller – Pure – which is set in Paris and thought it was superb. So I was more than happy to get a copy of his newest novel from Netgalley in return for an honest review
Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding Heart Square has the feel of a Dickens or a Wilkie Collins’ novel. We’re on familiar ground with its plot of a dark and convoluted murder mystery and its setting of a grubby corner of London. The cast of larger than life characters equally wouldn’t feel out of place in Woman in White or Our Mutual Friend.
Taylor may hark to the past but he gives his murder mystery a modern twist by overlaying a twentieth-century political dimension.
The year is 1934. The British fascism movement is in its infancy but making its presence felt. Anyone who voices dissent to their views gets beaten up by the blackshirted followers of their leader, Oswald Mosely.
Violence on the streets is paralleled by bullying, oppressive behaviour in the home.
Lydia Langstone, a young, privileged society wife, decides she will no longer endure the abusive behaviour of her feeble-minded husband who looks “… like a sinister Boy Scout, his emotional and intellectual development doomed to remain for ever somewhere between 13 and 14 years old”.
Marcus Langstone is trying to wheedle his way into Oswald Mosely’s inner circle. Convinced that Mosely will soon become the country’s leader, he sees himself as his right hand man with a key role in government. No-one will get in his way, especially not his aristocratic wife whom he despises. But Lydia is more than his match. She walks out of her comfortable marital home in Mayfair. leaving behind most of her clothes and jewels, and seeks refuge in the decaying cul-de-sac of Bleeding Heart Square. It was once the site of a medieval palace, but now reeks of cabbage and drains.
Her father is no help; he’s a drunkard and a sponger who steers rather too close to the edge of legality. But Lydia has no-where else to go. She just has to learn to cook and clean, to economise and find some way of earning a living. In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she finds a kindred spirit.
Unwittingly Lydia has stepped into a mystery that begins to take hold of her. Why is a plain-clothes policeman keeping a close eye on the square? What happened to Miss Penhow, the middle-aged, wealthy spinster who owns the house? She supposedly vanished to America four years earlier after signing over all her property to one Joseph Serridge. Someone has now started to send packages of maggot-infested meat to Serridge. Is there a connection to the legend that the Devil once danced in Bleeding Heart Square and left a murdered woman behind him?
The answers come and the pieces of the puzzle slowly fall into place as we follow Miss Penhow’s story, told as extracts from an old notebook. In parallel we track Lydia’s own attempts to find the truth, despite the risk this presents to her own safety.
It’s a complex plot handled well with plenty of red herrings to keep up the suspense. My one criticism of Bleeding Heart Square is that it does take a while to reach the resolution. But that gives us even more time to enjoy the rich period atmosphere as the novel moves from corner house cafe, to solicitors’ offices, quiet villages and the crypt of a nearby church. Taylor skilfully handles the novel’s biggest set piece: a meeting organised by the British Union Fascists that descends into a violent anti-Semitic riot.
At its heart (sorry for the pun) Bleeding Heart Square is a delightful old-fashioned yarn of murder committed for the sake of money. In many ways this is a throw back to the Golden Age of crime and mystery fiction. But Taylor gives the familiar device a fresh edge by surrounding it with political and social themes.
Chief of course is the birth of Fascism but Taylor’s novel also examines the position of women in 1930s Britain. Women had fought the right to vote sixteen years earlier but true independence was still a long way into the future. Women like Miss Penhow were prey to the unscrupulous while many others found themselves in exactly the same predicament as Lydia: trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage. As Taylor shows, her options are limited. She has no skills to use to make her financially independent and no experience of domestic chores. Though divorce was possible, it was a step undertaken with grave risks to the woman’s reputation. Thus almost everyone in Bleeding Heart Square urges her to return to the abusive Marcus.
The Britain of Bleeding Heart Square is however a Britain on the cusp of events that will radically change the nature of the country. While there are points in the novel where the consequences of the First World War are mentioned the omens of a greater conflict to come loom even larger.
About the Author: Andrew Taylor was born in East Anglia, England and studied at Cambridge before getting an MA in library sciences from University College London. His first novel, Caroline Miniscule was published in 1982 and is a modern-day treasure hunt featuring a history student. He is probably best known for his 2003 novel The American Boy which won the Crime Writers’ Association of Britain’s Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award.
Berlin in 1939 is a city of fear. Wealth, status and intelligence count for nothing in the face of hostility and antipathy towards people of the Jewish faith. For many families the only option is to flee the country. But who will take them? Other countries are not falling over themselves to provide a refuge.
For the Rosenthal family, salvation beckons when they gain coveted visas enabling them to enter Cuba, from where they will head to the United States. Leaving their classy apartment and precious heirlooms behind to be snaffled by the Nazi regime, they board the SS St. Louis, a luxurious transatlantic liner, and head for asylum. But before they can dock, the Cuban government changes its mind, leaving the 900 passengers in limbo.
After a tense period 12 -year-old Hannah Rosenthal and her mother are allowed entry but her professor father is barred because he has a different type of visa. The ship’s captain has little choice but to return to Europe with almost a full complement of passengers. Professor Rosenthal and Hannah’s best friend Leo sail away from Cuba, fearing imprisonment or death.
Reading this as a piece of fiction is an emotionally-engaging experience. But it’s made more so by the knowledge that The German Girl is based on a little-known episode that, until the early part of this century, was not even publicly acknowledged. The author Armando Lucas Correa, who is editor-in-chief of People en Español, has clearly based his debut novel on extensive research. The back of the book comes with an extensive historical note about the whole episode and what happened to the passengers after they left Cuba. But what touched me was to find a page bearing the signatures of all the passengers on the ship and numerous photographs showing them on board the ship.
Correa has chosen to tell his story through the eyes of two teenage girls. Hannah Rosenthal is a thoughtful but determined girl, fiercely loyal to her friend Leo and devoted to her father. Her relationship with her mother is more distant. Hannah constantly comments on how her mother acts as if she is on a stage, choosing her outfits carefully and deliberately waiting to be the last to board the ship so that all eyes will be upon her. She begins her story in dramatic fashion: “I was almost twelve years old when I decided to kill my parents.”
It’s a reflection of her desperation and unhappiness at having to love her home in Berlin even though she is frightened by the red and black flags draped along every street. Leo is her salvation, a street-wise kid who always seems to know what is going on and who extracts Hannah’s promise that she will never forget him.
Alternating with Hannah’s story is that of Anna Rosen, a 12-year-old girl in present-day New York. Anna’s father died in the attack on the World Trade Centre before Anna was born. Her mother has retreated into herself and the girl is left to suffer alone. One day she receives a package from great-aunt Hannah in Cuba who had acted as a surrogate mother to Anna’s late father. The package contains photographs taken on board a ship. In search of anything that will help her connect with her father, Anna and her mother travel to Cuba to meet Hannah and hear her story. What she reveals is that even in Cuba they were never allowed to forget they were ‘outsiders’.
The dual time narrative unfortunately didn’t work for me. I can see why Correa chose that approach, drawing parallels between the loss that both girls experience and the way they have to grow up quickly to look after their mothers. But Anna’s narrative had little of the drama and pathos that I found with Hannah’s story and the connections were often forced. In fact I don’t think the book would have suffered at all if Anna had been eliminated.
The German Girl was at times a frustrating experience because of that dual-narrator issue but it did get me thinking about the way, even today, refugees are treated.
It’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.
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.