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.
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.)
A chance discovery of a real-life tale of personal sacrifice and survival made such a lasting impression on the Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent Geraldine Brooks, that it lingered in her memory for almost ten years.
While she was taking a walking holiday in the UK’s Peak District she noticed a sign for the village of Eyam bearing the beguiling descriptor ‘the plague village’. An exhibition in a nearby parish church explained how the term derived from an episode in 1665 when bubonic plague descended on this community and in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease the villagers shut themselves off from the world. Brookes began to see parallels between the villagers’ story of self sacrifice and instances she had encountered during her time in some of the world’s hot spots of people who under the pressure of extreme circumstances found unexpected reservoirs of bravery. The result was her international best selling novel Year of Wonders that she wrote ten years after her visit to Eyam.
Published in 2001, this is a novel which depicts the events of that fateful year of 1665. It began with the death of a tailor. Then spread quickly to his customers and soon the villagers began to dread the signs of high fever and supperating pustules that presaged the imminent death of their neighbours; their sons and their daughters; their wives and husbands. The local landed gentry fled in fear of their lives but the rest remained, persuaded by their forceful rector Michael Mompellion that a voluntary quarantine could prevent the spread of the “plague-seeds” beyond their boundaries.
The story of this decision and its aftermath is told through the eyes of Anna Frith, a young maidservant who assists the rector in his determination to contain the disease. She’s a spirited, resourceful character who forms a close bond with the minister’s wife in her endeavour to use herbs and plants to bring some comfort to the villagers who do succumb to the disease. Not that there is much solace in this village even for those who escape the pestilence. Many of them suffer in ways other than death, losing their reason, their faith and in some cases, their humanity. But as they weaken, Anna’s resourcefulness and courage gives her the strength not just to survive but to thrive and grow.
To re-create the past, Brooks drew on records that explained contemporary beliefs about the plague, the lives of lead miners and shepherds such as those who lived in this part of Derbyshire, clothing and patterns of speech. But in the absence of any substantial body of written material from the villagers themselves, much of what she recounts as their actual experience came from her imagination.
For Brooks, that process of imagining life in a community so far removed by time and location from her own world, involved drawing on personal experiences and finding resonances in contemporary life. Talking to students on the Plagues, Witches and War MOOC course which features Year of Wonders as a set text, Brooks argued that emotions and sensations don’t change through the centuries even if the particular circumstances differ. The intense pain of a difficult and life threatening childbirth she herself experienced would be the same endured by a woman in the same circumstances in the seventeenth century:
What we [historical fiction authors] do, we empathize, we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This is what the nature of being a human being is, at its best, is empathy. I can presume to know her consciousness, her pain, her frustration….these things are what make us human, and they don’t change.
It may be that empathetic approach was one reason why many of the human reactions portrayed in Year of Wonders seemed plausible even if the events described were almost beyond belief. I wouldn’t rank it as a wonderful novel (some of the dialogue is rather strained and the ending pushes the boundaries of credulity) but it was still very readable and a big step above the other set texts on the course.
I’m not going to beat about the bush on this. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is one of the worst books I have read all year. Not the absolute worst, but certainly only a whisker away from the bottom of the pile.
But before I explain why I’ve taken such a dislike to this book, here is a brief synopsis of its plot.
The novel is set in Massachusetts in the summer of 1991. It features the young, aspiring Harvard graduate student Connie Goodwin who intends to spend the summer researching for her doctoral dissertation. Her plans are thrown awry when her mother asks her to handle the sale of a long-abandoned house in Salem that once belonged to Connie’s grandmother. In the house Connie discovers a seventeenth-century Bible and hidden inside, a key and a small fragment of parchment bearing the words Deliverance Dane. Connie duly embarks on a quest to discover the identity of Deliverance Dane and the location of a rare book of physick. In doing so she discovers a personal connection to the Salem witchcraft trials of 1692.
Fact and fiction are woven together in this book through a dual time-frame narrative — in between the story of Connie’s quest, we experience scenes in the household of Deliverance Dane and in the jail where she awaited trial. Deliverance Dane did actually exist — she was one of many women condemned as a witch though, unlike nineteen other women, she escaped the hangman’s noose.
In the hands of a more experienced novelist, this could have been an interesting take on an infamous period in history. But this is Katherine Howe’s debut novel and sadly her inexperience is evident.
First of all the character of her protagonist isn’t that convincing. Here we have a girl who, right at the start of the book, wows a group of leading academics with her encyclopaedic knowledge and insightful interpretation of historical themes and issues. She has spent months amassing data from the past and yet we find only a few pages later that she is astonished to discover that up until the seventeenth century (one of the periods she has studied) the word receipt actually meant recipe. Maybe she should have watched some cookery programs on TV instead of reading academic tomes?
But there was an even earlier moment at which I rolled my eyes in disbelief. If you’d pitched up on the doorstep of a seventeenth century house (having first had to virtually hack your way through creepers and other vegetation to get the door) and discover it has no power or phone and is inches deep in dust; would you want to stay the night? No, neither would I. I hazard a guess that most girls in their early twenties also wouldn’t trade it for the comforts of their flat in Cambridge. But not our Connie. She not only stays the night, she makes it her for the summer.
If characterisation isn’t this book’s strong point, then neither is the writing style. The flashback scenes to the 1680s and 90s are, on the whole, evocative of the period but the modern day sections are riven with cliches, inconsequential detail about the character’s clothing and dry dialogue. And there are also some dreadfully clunky sections where the author tries to impart some factual information but can’t quite manage to do it seamlessly.
I’m conscious that all this sounds rather harsh criticism of someone’s first foray into the fictional world but actually I think the fault lies with the publisher and editor for failing to identify where improvements could have been made or maybe even suggesting that the book would have been so much better without the modern day hocus pocus quest.
It’s even more difficult a decision to make than the one around how many pairs of shoes.
The last thing I want is to be on an eight hour flight with a book that I’m not enjoying. Which is why I invariably end up buying another book in the airport ‘just in case’. And why my iPad has been loaded with e books – again ‘just in case’ of a calamity. Because that’s what it would be to me if I run out of reading options before landing.
So the choice of book requires some careful thought.
If I was being good, then I would of course take one of the reading texts from the Plagues, Witches and War historical fiction course:
Fever by Mary Beth Keane. This is a novel based on the true life story of Typhoid Mary. Mary Mallone was an immigrant to the United States who was discovered to be a carrier of the disease, passing it on though never suffering herself. Branded by the press as a murderer, she was arrested and held in confinement. The plot sounds good but I’ve seen some comments that the narrative style isn’t wonderful.
Ghost Brides by Yangsze Choo. Set in colonial Malaya, this novel looks at an ancient custom of ghost brides which is a practice said to placate a restless spirit. It features a genteel but bankrupt family who are tempted by the offer of a ghost marriage for their daughter who otherwise would have few prospects. The setting of turn of the century Malaysia is considered to be one of the highlights of the book.
My hesitation is that I’ve read a lot of historical fiction recently so a change of genre could be welcome. My two shortlisted options are:
The Man Who Forgot his Wife by John O’Farrell. This is the selection for the December book club. It’s about a man who steps off a London Underground train one day (there is a suggestion he was involved in a terrorist attack or a fire) and has no idea who he is. The rest of the novel involves him trying to piece together his life.
L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. This is on my Classics Club list. I’ve enjoyed two of the other books in the Rougon-Macquart cycle and this one has come highly recommended. But I’ve also had one experience with another highly recommended Zola novel – Nana – which I couldn’t finish. So it might be a gamble.
Any suggestions on how to resolve this dilemma? What would you recommend if you’ve read any of these books?