The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

I have read a couple of books about English witch trials, and the history of why they happened, so this book wasn’t entirely new ground for me – but is certainly an original take on the period the events. The Witchfinder’s Sister gives the infamous Matthew Hopkins a fictional sister in the form of Alice, our narrator. She has quite a strong narrative voice and I think you really get a sense of who she is and how she experiences things throughout the novel. For while the novel is about Matthew and his reign of terror, it is really about Alice and her side of the story.

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As Matthew’s sister Alice has an insight into his personality and some of his reasons for persecuting alleged witches with such fervour, and this exploration of their family psychology and history is well executed. Alice revisits several scenes from their childhood and adolescence, trying to get a clearer picture of Matthew’s state of mind and why he is behaving as he does. This was of looking at Matthew’s story, through the eyes of a fictional sister, was a bold choice, but author Beth Underdown creates a vivid picture throughout with excellent characterisation and imagery. I loved the way that she built up Alice’s character throughout the book and revealed more and more as time went on. We learn about Alice’s late husband, her several miscarriages, and her relationships with her parents, as well as with Matthew while they were growing up. These things all feed into her experiences in the novel, living with Matthew and feeling trapped by him, and dealing with past traumas.

One thing I particularly liked about The Witchfinder’s Sister is the depictions of the lives of the women – there is Alice, but also Matthew’s maid Grace and the cook, Mary, along with the women accused of witchcraft that appear sporadically. We see how easy it is for all these women to be persecuted in some way, both publicly and in the home, in small ways and big dramatic ways. We see how they are all trapped in some form, in ways that the men in the novel just aren’t. Matthew runs a strict household, exercising his power over the women. He is able to enact his warped sense of justice largely because he is a man and so people listen to him. His deep-seated resentments and opinions about women are a huge influence on his pursuit and persecution of alleged witches – and the men who agree with him allow these things to happen. Underdown also demonstrates how these attitudes and opinions get into the minds of women too, so that they believe that the accused really are witches, really are deserving of torture and horrific executions – and they do not fight back against false accusations and obvious injustice.

The Witchfinder’s Sister is a novel that explores a well-trodden path through new perspectives, shining a light on women’s experiences and the things that drive people to do terrible things. While imperfect it is still an excellent debut novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

*

Published in March 2017 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin UK. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Foyles, Blackwell’s, and Wordery.

WWW Wednesday, 19th April 2017

I’m sure you have now heard about WWW Wednesday (even I know about it), but to recap, this is what it entails – you must post about three books:

  • What you most recently finished reading
  • What you are currently reading
  • What you will read next

Here are mine!

What I recently finished reading: Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell

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This was the second biography of Catherine Howard that I have read this year, and it really was excellent. I am currently planning a blog about this and the other biography (by Josephine Wilkinson).

What I am currently reading: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

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This was sent to me by Penguin for review, and I’d wanted to read it for a while. It’s an interesting take on a well-known story and historical figure (Matthew Hopkins) and so far it is very engaging. Review to come!

What I will read next: Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym

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Another review copy from Penguin, which also looks intriguing. I love a bit of narrative non-fiction and this looks like the sort of unusual memoir that I will enjoy.

What are your WWW books?

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

See What I Have Done is one of those books that gets an awful lot of hype and press, and often this puts me off for some reason – but in this case it is entirely deserved and I couldn’t be happier to see promos and reviews all over social media. I read a proof copy back in November and loved it instantly. The premise alone drew me in: it is the story of Lizzie Borden and the infamous murders of her father and stepmother. I love historical fiction, and I love true crime, so this  was a perfect blend of both. Lizzie Borden is a fascinating character from history that just gets under your skin. She was famously acquitted of the murders, but there remains suspicion that she was guilty, and the mysteriousness of her character is something that Schmidt uses excellently.

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Tinder Press 2017 edition (image via goodreads.com)

The book is narrated by four people: Lizzie herself, the maid Bridget, Lizzie’s sister Emma, and a man named Benjamin who gets caught up in their story. All of them are unreliable, something that becomes more and more clear the more you read. The women are all wrapped up in the strangeness of the household and the family, tortured by the strained emotions and simmering tensions. Lizzie is clearly not an easy person to live with, but she is not the only one guilty of making things difficult. The Borden family are filled with sadness and a longing for the past, for better days. Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, keeps all the windows and doors locked for fear of criminals, and this literal confinement only exacerbates the feeling of being trapped in their lives that all the characters seem to feel.

The women of the house are trapped in their feminine roles and their corsets, never to be free like men and do as they please. And Andrew, the only one with any real power, keeps them that way. The relationships between the women – Lizzie, Emma, Bridget, and the stepmother Abby – are quietly brilliant and acutely observed. They have no obvious reason to dislike each other, but the oppressive atmosphere in the house brings out the worst in them, even if they do not intend it. Like any family they have a few small disputes, but for the Bordens these become life-changing.

Benjamin is one of the only entirely fictional characters in the book. He turns up in their town of Fall River looking for work, and by chance meets their uncle John. Now I’ve decided not to tell exactly how Benjamin gets wrapped up with the Bordens – but suffice to say he gets quite close to them and, crucially, provides an outside view to the events of the story.

I thought both Benjamin and Bridget were excellent choices as narrators. They are both outside of the family, but still close to it, and they give us a slightly different perspective. Bridget observes the quarrels between Lizzie and her parents, and the effects of Lizzie’s moods and is the unique position of being part of the household but not part of the family, so she observes everything without always knowing what it means. The Bordens are a family full of unexpressed emotions, unfulfilled desires, and stifled arguments. Lizzie is the only one that seems to let anything out, and for this she if often treated like a child by her parents, but particularly by her father. Andrew Borden is very stuck in his ways, and is emotionally closed off and quite cold and hard towards his family, even his wife Abby. He does not deal with Lizzie’s outbursts and tantrums very well, and I think he makes her feel even more trapped and stifled than she already does.

Living in the 1800s meant that Lizzie could not have an independent life, and is stuck living in the family home. You can see why she is frustrated with her life, but she is also, frankly, quite childish and selfish, and doesn’t always see that life is sometimes hard for the rest of her family as well. She has a push-pull relationship with her sister Emma, and I think though they love each other there is also a lot of resentment and negative feelings.

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Lizzie Borden in about 1890 (image via wikipedia.com)

Schmidt excels at this sort of family psychology, and as a result the entire cast of characters feel entirely real. This is also due to the first person narratives, and the fact that all the events of the book take place over only two days. This means that everything is examined, often from multiple angles, and small events often take on more meaning. The short time frame allows Schmidt to really get inside her character’s heads and examine exactly what happened and when. I felt that the two days covered in the novel are the culmination of a lifetime of family secrets and strong emotions, of dysfunctional relationships, and unfulfilled desires. All the problems and issues within the Borden family are exemplified in those two days, and as we know the results are extreme.

As the book progresses you realise that Schmidt has a clear opinion about whether or not Lizzie is guilty, but this doesn’t ruin anything and I don’t think she is trying to influence the reader. It is still up to you to decided whether you think she really killed Andrew and Abby. She remains a mystery to this day.

Sarah Schmidt writes a wonderful blog where she often discusses her experiences of writing See What I Have Done, and tells the story of why she chose to write about Lizzie Borden. I would really recommend reading this as it helps to explain some of the reasons why Lizzie remains in the public consciousness and why she is still so fascinating.

*

Published in May 2017 by Tinder Press in the UK. I read a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

The Good People by Hannah Kent

Like many readers I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites (2013), so I had high expectations for The Good People. Like its predecessor it is set in the first half of the 19th century, this time in 1820s Ireland. Also like Burial Rites, it features unhappy women as its central characters.

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The blurb dedicates a paragraph each to the three central women of The Good People – Nóra, recently widowed and looking after her disabled grandson Micheál; Mary, her maid, who cares for Micheál; and Nance, the local ‘handy woman’ who has ‘the knowledge’ and serves as a healer for the village. Initially the focus is on Nóra as she grieves for her husband and struggles to take care of Micheál. We learn that his mother, Nóra’s daughter Johanna, passed away and his father brought him to Nóra because he could not care for him himself. Micheál is about four years old and before he was brought to her, Nóra had only seen him once before, at the age of two, and he was healthy. He could speak and walk – two things that he cannot do when he is brought to her.

Micheál, though four, is more like a baby and can do nothing for himself. His condition is inexplicable to his family, and theories abound as to why he is now so unwell, when once he was healthy. When the villagers come to Nóra’s house for her husband’s wake, she asks her neighbour Peg to look after her grandson – she is ashamed of him and does not want to face the stares and questions of her visitors, or their theories about him.

Initially Nóra worries that Johanna and her husband may have mistreated or neglected Micheál as he is so thin, but over time she doubts this. Slowly both Nóra and the others in the village begin to think that the child may be a changeling – not really a child at all but a fairy left in his place, while the real Micheál has been taken away by the ‘Good People’, the fairies. This was a common belief in many cultures at the time (the Wiki page is quite good) and was how people explained disability or conditions that we now understand thanks to modern science and medicine.

Nóra soon employs Mary to help her look after Micheál. She becomes more and more convinced that her grandson is a changeling and leaves Mary to care for him. The village is a place filled with old stories and beliefs, and its people are ruled by superstition and fear, as well as gossip. There is a dichotomy between their Christianity and their belief in fairies, curses, and the healing powers of herbs and old remedies. This is nicely demonstrated by the cynicism of their priest, Father Healy. He does not believe in the Good People and condemns them as pagan nonsense.

He similarly condemns Nance and her belief that she has been given knowledge by the Good People and is able to cure illnesses and ailments. There are several fascinating and challenging conversations between them as he urges her to give up her practices, and she calmly defends herself. Nance’s whole life has been filled with magic and fairies, with her mother being ‘taken’ by them, and her aunt Maggie teaching her how to use their knowledge and cures. In a series of flashbacks to Nance’s youth it becomes clear that her mother was mentally ill in some way, and Nance’s grief was eased by her new knowledge of the Good People and their ways.

As Nóra becomes more desperate she turns to Nance for help with Micheál, and this is where the story really gets interesting. It is heartbreaking to read about the boy’s suffering, and the stress of caring for him, but it gets worse as Nóra’s belief that he is not really her grandson deepens. She starts to call him ‘it’ and becomes angry when he cries. As Nóra becomes more and more hardened to the boy, Mary becomes more worried about him, and warns Nóra that even if she believes he is a changeling she should not be so cold and cruel towards him. Mary’s fear of God means that she is able to protect the boy from the worst of his grandmother’s feelings towards him.

I won’t spoil the book by writing about what happens when Micheál is taken to Nance, and what happens at the end. It is a story that is sometimes difficult to read, as we can see that Micheál is suffering – but we also see how hard it is care for him without modern conveniences and technology. Mary has the best intentions but is still worn down by sleep deprivation and the constant attention her young charge requires. The world these characters inhabit is hard and cruel, and unforgiving. Towards the end of the book you really begin to realise just how isolated they are in their rural community and how ignorant they are of the developments of science and technology. They are illiterate and exist in their own small world.

Hannah Kent sensitively portrays a certain time and a certain place in The Good People. None of the characters are portrayed as evil or bad because they believe that Micheál may be a changeling – rather they are ignorant of any other explanation for his condition and desperately want a way to make things better. They are torn between folklore and Christianity and inhabit a world that seems completely alien to us now. Some parts of the novel are heart-wrenchingly sad, and you wish you could reach in and make the characters see that what they believe simply isn’t true.

The Good People is as intense and moving as Burial Rites, and also presents a lot of moral and ethical questions, many of which are indirectly but carefully examined. As expected Hannah Kent’s writing is as lovely as ever, and the novel is immersive and engaging. I would only warn readers against the deep sadness in this book – but otherwise it is highly recommended.

*

Published in 2017 by Pan Macmillan (UK edition pictured above).

Purchase from Wordery, Foyles, and Blackwell’s.

Despite the Falling Snow by Shamim Sarif – blog tour!

I was kindly invited to take part in the blog tour for the new edition of this book, first published in 2004, and am very glad I accepted. The new edition was published on 7th April to tie in with the new film adaptation, which is released on 15th April.

Despite the Falling Snow takes place in 1990s Boston and 1950s Russia, moving deftly between the two timelines. In both we have Alexander, who worked for the government in Russia, but who moved to the US at the end of the 50s. He escaped communism but was forced to leave his beloved wife Katya behind, and she passed away. She was also a spy for the Americans, and Alexander blames himself for her death.

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In 1990s Boston he is a successful businessman, on the brink of selling his business. He meets the mother of his potential buyer, Estelle, and they quickly develop a friendship; he also becomes close to his niece Lauren, the daughter of Katya’s brother Yuri (who was able to escape to the US), and things start to change.

Estelle is fascinated by his life story and is desperate to know more, and Lauren desperately wants to know what really happened to her aunt. Alexander thinks he has buried his feelings and his past, but these two women force him to reexamine this and try to confront the truth.

Suffice to say I really enjoyed Despite the Falling Snow. It is a bit of a slow starter, but gets better and better the further you read on. The pacing is my only real criticism – I wished we could have spent more time with Katya and Alexander in Russia when things start to get really desperate, and the crux of the story takes place. But this in no way ruins the book, and the outcome of the story in both timelines is excellently done, nuanced and sensitive.

I also loved the ways in which the story demonstrates the effects of the past on the present – both for those who were there (like Alexander) and for those to whom it is important (like Lauren). The relationship between Alexander and Lauren is depicted with emotional intelligence and sensitivity. He is ageing and somewhat closed off, and she helps him to soften and open up, and they bond over this process.

I found Estelle very interesting – in some ways she is the archetypal put-upon housewife with a distant husband and daughter; but Sarif gives her real depth and personality, and the difficulties of her life are dealt with very sensitively. I raged silently with her when her husband is being, frankly, a terrible person, and wished that she would find what she was looking for. Her friendship with Alexander is very sweet and you can see how important it is to both of them, in different ways.

While there is great sadness and injustice in this book, they are not overblown, despite being keenly felt. It would have been very easy for Despite the Falling Snow to be almost melodramatic, but Shamim Sarif handles her story and characters with grace and sensitivity, and a deep respect for the past. A wonderful book.

*

Originally published by Headline in 2004; I read the 2016 edition published by John Blake/Metro (pictured above), which was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Here are the other dates for the blog tour:

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Buy your copy here from Foyles.

The film adaptation of Despite the Falling Snow is released in the UK on 15th April.

 

In Which I Am So, So Glad I Finally Read The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

In brief, this is the story of a man who was once a Nazi officer, a story of his war; it is a fictional autobiography of an intellectual thrown into the horror of the Second World War. It is the War from ‘the other side’. But it is so, so much more than that.

Dr Max Aue is an intellectual, a successful businessman; and he used to be a Nazi officer. In his introduction he states that he intends to ‘set the record straight’ and that is why he decides to tell his story, but there may be other reasons in play. At times he is brutally frank about what he saw, or did, or was involved with, and one cannot deny the catharsis of a confession.

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The detail of the historical research in The Kindly Ones is astounding. Jonathan Littell spent five years researching and a year writing, and it shows. The real characters, that we know from history, are well rounded and chime with historical accounts (particularly Himmler and Eichmann). The depth of detail displays the bureaucracy, internal politics, and conflicts within the Nazi party that affect so much of what happens during the War. Once you have read about the grim reality of the victims, it is fascinating to gain this perspective into the Nazi regime. As in Eichmann in Jerusalem, we learn of the inner workings and day-to-day events that make the Party seem almost like a business or a manufacturer. As Max rises within the Party and is privy to more and more of its inner workings, we see that the suffering of the victims is often viewed as a byproduct of the industry the Nazis create.

Max himself is a Freudian nightmare; self-obsessed, filled with self-loathing, fixated on bodily functions and the intricacies of his family relationships. He relates his dreams, analysing them a little and leaving the rest to us. He in an intellectual dragged into a bloody war between what might be good and what might be evil, and he hates both himself and everyone else around him. He is repulsed by human suffering, but also by his own actions. It is unsurprising when he gets ill or has a mental breakdown (both happen more than once).

I could spend a lot of time and words analysing Max and his own unique brand of crazy. He is a deeply real character, a terrible and brilliant person, and you both hate him and love him, mostly out of pity. I greatly admire Littell for his commitment to his creation.

The Kindly Ones is heavy going, not only for its subject matter and the intensity of Max’s narrative, but also because it is over 900 pages long. But, if you have the interest in the history, as well as the philosophy and psychology (there is a lot of both) then it is well worth the time and effort. Like Max, it is terrible and brilliant, and crazy in its own way. My only real criticism is that it was obviously translated by an American and so there is some American phrasing, which is a bit jarring because Max is European, and I, the reader, am English. But really this is insignificant.

I can’t tell you how wonderful this book is. It is not something to be taken lightly, but it is its own kind of masterpiece.

*

Originally published as Les Bienveillantes in France in 2006 by Editions Gallimard; then in English in 2009 by Chatto & Windus. I read the 2010 paperback published by Vintage (pictured above).

Buy your copy from Foyles here.

After you’ve read it I would recommend getting some background on the Wikipedia page (lots of excellent Greek mythology).

 

“Never trust your secrets to a Raven, when you are not its true master…”

After finishing The Silent Woman I was at a loss as to what to read next and so I did what I usually do in that situation, which is to choose a few books that appeal and read the beginnings of each of them, read the blurbs over and over, and choose which one to commit to by whatever feels right at the time. It’s a gut feeling, a mood, an urge. It’s quite random and often results in perfectly good books like The Vanishing Witch being unfairly left alone. So I read the Prologue and part of the opening chapter of The Raven’s Head; I wasn’t sure how much I liked it at first, but my instinct drove me on, and I ploughed through a hundred pages in the first sitting.

2014 Headline Review proof copy
2014 Headline Review proof copy

It is Medieval, dark, mysterious, and certainly engaging. The Prologue introduces us to young boy named Wilky and his family, and the mysterious priests dressed all the white who come to take him away, supposedly to educate him. But they come too soon, he is too young, not ready, and is both confused and terrified as they swing him up onto a horse and carry him off into the night. Next we meet Vincent, the only character with a first person narrative, who works as a scribe’s apprentice at the home of Philippe, a French nobleman. He lives his life in a turret with his master, almost a cliche of a crotchety old man, and has a safe but boring and unpleasant life. He yearns for adventure. Gisa does also; she works in her uncle’s apothecary shop and has absorbed all his knowledge of herbs, oils, unguents, poultices, and powders. Their three stories slowly work themselves closer together as the book goes on, and they ultimately encounter each other in Gisa’s world, in Norfolk.

I wonder how much Maitland was thinking about fate and destiny as she wrote. The more I read, the more I thought about them and now much of a role they play in this story. There is also the question of our ‘true self’ and what it is that we really want from life – and that this may be different from what we first thought. Almost every character in this book is tested and pushed to their limit, forced to confront things they have no desire to, and to suffer terribly for as-yet-unknown reasons.

Suffice to say they all have a pretty hard time of it. Wilky is subject to the harshness of life at the abbey, with punishments for even the slightest transgressions, and the fear of being taken away in the night; Gisa is soon employed by the strange Lord Sylvain to grind powders and help him with his ‘work’ in his tower (all so Gothic!); and Vincent soon finds a way to blackmail Philippe, thinking himself clever, and is subsequently sent on a mission with a silver raven’s head as his precious cargo. Guess what, it’s the raven’s head of the title and it’s a lot more important than the young Vincent thinks it is. He thinks he can sell it and make his fortune… but the raven has other plans.

I don’t want to say too much more about the plot for fear of ruining it for those of you who plan to read the book. The twists and turns create so much excitement it would be terrible to know them all in advance (I guessed rather few of the surprises), and it really is a story that you want to sweep you away and transport you. The classic Gothic side of things accelerates as the story goes on, and the cliches of the genre are used extremely well, so that they are exciting and relevant rather than re-hashed retellings. Maitland’s prose and characterisations are strong enough to prevent The Raven’s Head from descending into pastiche or ludicrous melodrama, and at though sometimes I did roll my eyes at moments that were overblown or unoriginal – but I appreciated the use of the Gothic and the storytelling, the vividness, and the humanity. There are some moments and scenes that are a little over the top, but they are still enjoyable and well written, and do not take away the merit from the whole. I sat and happily read this story for hours, caring about the characters and enchanted by their adventures. If you take some of the more OTT bits with a pinch of salt, The Raven’s Head is a very enjoyable romp.

*

The Raven’s Head is published in March 2015 by Headline Review. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth

These days I can’t help but worry that people won’t always appreciate literature as they should – that everyone will have a Kindle and no one will have any books – that children will only want to read if it’s on a screen – that people will forget the classics and anything that isn’t new or award winning. These are ‘topical’ fears but they aren’t new. Ever since literacy became widespread and part of the life of the everyday person, people have been worrying that literature is not as appreciated as it should be. And yet. Stories are an integral part of almost every society, in some way. Even if people don’t have paper to write on, they tell stories. Tribes in the jungle and in the Arctic, people who can’t even read – we all have stories.

Fairy and folk stories are a huge part of European cultural history (as they are for other parts of the world too). In the same way that the stories of Homer were passed down through oral storytelling, told from memory, folk tales were passed along the generations in Europe, and still are. In the early 1800s two of the Grimm children (there were five in total) decided they wanted to preserve the folk tales of Europe and copy them down into a proper book, and get it published. Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm gathered stories from friends, neighbours, grandparents, anyone that knew some old traditional tales. Their aim, as stated in The Wild Girl, was to preserve their cultural history and pass on the lessons found in these stories. Napoleon was rampaging through Europe at the time, trying to make everyone French whether they liked it or not, and this only furthered the Grimms’ desire to preserve something of their culture.

Allison & Busby 2014 paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)
Allison & Busby 2014 paperback edition (image: goodreads.com)

The path of Napoleon’s army, its successes and failures, and the exploits of his relatives that he installs as monarchs, are charted throughout The Wild Girl alongside the stories of the characters. The war directly effects them as Napoleon’s brother takes over as king in their part of Germany and promptly reduces the people to paupers as he throws lavish parties and spends the soldiers’ wages on new chandeliers. We see the effects of this behaviour, as well as those of the war in general, on the people through the two families at the centre of the novel: the Grimms and their neighbours the Wilds. Dortchen Wild, one of five children, is the ‘Wild Girl’ of the title. We see everything through her eyes throughout the book, and learn of her love for Wilhelm Grimm and her fear of her increasingly tyrannical and abusive father. She is small and brave, a modern Disney heroine with terrible parents, a benevolent, maternal housekeeper, and an illicit love for a forbidden suitor.

For Wilhelm Grimm has no money, and few prospects. His only income is his and Jakob’s book of stories, which goes through several incarnations as they try to improve it and get someone to publish it. The two families’ struggle seems to get increasingly hard, and there are some rather bleak sections of the book when everything seems to be going wrong. Collecting the fairy and folk tales keeps them going however, and it is fascinating to hear older versions of tales very familiar to us all, as well as the possible ways in which they were shaped and developed. Dortchen and Wilhelm’s relationship develops as she tells him stories, and we get a real sense of how they lead their lives, and how they deal with life’s difficulties. My only real criticism of The Wild Girl is that it occasionally gets too caught up in the fraught nature of Dortchen and Wilhelm’s romantic relationship, and the fact that they cannot be together. In the last third of the book there are chapters and chapters of romantic drama and back-and-forth between the two characters; really it drags on a bit! And then of course this makes the ending and conclusion feel a little too neat and quick after such prolonged romantic anguish.

Other than that I loved The Wild Girl – I loved the concept, the idea, the characters, and the vivid world they live in. Kate Forsyth has done a wonderful job in demonstrating how the stories we know and love came to be in the public consciousness, and how important storytelling is to so many different cultures. As historical fiction it is also excellent, weaving together fact with speculation and examining a sweeping history alongside a close family story. Forsyth’s other novel Bitter Greens (also based around fairy tales) is on my reading list, and I’m sure it will be just as excellent as The Wild Girl.

*

Published in 2014 by Allison & Busby (UK paperback).

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Well, well, well… hello again Sarah. We have all missed you.

I don’t remember when I first decided I loved Sarah Waters. We studied Affinity for a course about the modern novel at university, so maybe it was then. I’ve since read all of her novels except one, which I plan to read very soon, and though some were better than others I loved them all. So when I heard a new one was being published I, like most of the book-reading/publishing world, got very excited. What was it about? When was it set? Would it be as good as the others? Would it live up to its own hype? And, perhaps most importantly, will there be lots of lesbian sex?

In a word – yes.

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(2014 Virago poof copy)

As I’m sure you know, whether you’ve read it or not, the novel starts with single gal (‘spinster’) Frances and her mother having to take in some lodgers. It is 1922 and they have lost not only Frances’ father and two brothers but also most of their money and their servants. This bitter combination leaves them with no choice but to take in paying guests. The opening scene sees them anxiously waiting for their arrival, looking at the clock and twitching the curtains. It’s a wonderfully constructed scene, and works perfectly as the nervous prologue before this saga of emotion, drama, and intrigue begins. The book is just over 500 pages, but it is the story itself rather than the length that has caused me to call it a ‘saga’. It so dense and rich, and Sarah Waters manages to capture all the tiny nuances and heartbreaks of life.

Frances is our main character and we stay with her throughout the novel, and see things from her point of view; but I am glad that it is not told in the first person. The events of the book (most of which I cannot share as it would just ruin it for you) are quite dramatic and intense, and Frances has an awful lot of feelings throughout the story. She goes through a huge range of emotions and experiences, but at the same time her world is quite small and she lives quite a claustrophobic life, much of which revolves around the house and her mother. I think if the story had been told in the first person it could easily have become a bit melodramatic and over the top, as well as exhausting for the reader – and I’m sure the writer too. So, it works perfectly that we have a healthy step or two between us and Frances. We observe her closely, and hear snippets of her thoughts and feelings, rather than having to endure and experience everything with her – something for which I was grateful.

For Frances does not have the easiest time of it. Not only is she lonely and stuck with endless housework and a fretting mother, she has to adjust to these new people living in her house, just across the hall. Though they are charming and friendly, and Frances and her mother have chosen to take them in, there is still a sense of intrusion and the destruction of the safe, familiar, family home. The house itself could almost be seen as a character in the novel, in a way. It symbolises both the things that Frances and her mother have lost, and the new life that they have no choice but to lead. It also becomes the scene for events that will change Frances’ life, and will take on new meaning, and engender new feelings from its inhabitants.

After we see Frances and her mother twitching and feeling anxious, dreading what might come, we are introduced to Mr and Mrs Barber. Frances and her mother are both horrified and charmed by them as they enter the house with smiles and handshakes, and apologies for being late. Straight away the issue of class presents itself: Frances and her mother are middle class, whereas Mr and Mrs Barber are of the ‘clerk class’, people who come from families with little money and status, but who work to better themselves. To Frances’ mother, and perhaps Frances herself, it is another symbol of how much their former life has faded, and how, in the harshest terms, they have been brought ‘lower’. They are no longer a family, but landladies.

Aside from thoroughly enjoying the plot (it is killing me that I can’t talk about it here) one of the best, best things about this novel is the characters, and Waters’ ability to ‘characterise’ them in such a way that they are not only vivid and real, but that we feel we get to know them as we spend more time with them. She is one of the few novelists whose characters have stayed with me, and continued to exist in their own universe. There is more to these characters’ lives than what we see in the novel, and when it has finished there is a strong sense that their lives will continue beyond the pages, that they will continue on their story – and what a joy it is to imagine what the rest of that story might hold. For me Frances is still there,  living her life and dealing with the consequences of the events of this wonderful book.

I imagine Frances would have worn something like this, from 1922 edition of Fashion Service magazine (image: dressmakingresearch.com)
I imagine Frances would have worn something like this, from a 1922 edition of Fashion Service magazine (image: dressmakingresearch.com)

Now. What about the lesbians? This is Sarah Waters. There have to be some lesbians, and they have to do it. And fear not, they do, quite a lot, and it’s pretty fantastic. There is a lot of talk of hips and breasts touching, and some really beautiful descriptions of types of kisses, and the mood and emotions of the – how shall I put it – encounters. ‘Encounters’ feels correct because here the sex is all illicit, secret, often hurried and urgent, which only serves to make it more erotic. Given the circumstances in which it occurs, and the circumstances of the women (yes, one of them is Frances) it becomes only more beautiful. It is loving and affectionate as well as horny and fumbly, and is often accompanied by a communication of deep feelings. At one point it is described as being like drinking water after having been deprived of it. The sex is in no way gratuitous and is not described in detail every time – sometimes it is, but sometimes it is described simply as ‘going to bed’ or something similar, which makes it seem awfully romantic and very sweet.

Surely the triumph of this novel is the analysis, exploration, and deep understanding of the very complex relationships within it. They are mostly Frances’ relationships, with her mother, Mrs Barber (who soon becomes ‘Lillian’) and Mr Barber (who soon becomes ‘Len’). She relates to them all in different but equally multi-faceted ways, and nothing that is said or done is ever (or at least is very rarely) completely honest and transparent. Much like Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters seem to perfectly perceive the delicacies and intricacies of our relationships and interactions; not only that but she is able to to transcribe them in such a way that they seem to be happening right in front of you. Actually, ‘transcribe’ is the wrong word, it is too literal. She moulds these scenes and these relationships out of words and captures them on the page, whereby they are relayed to us, the reader. This story is intensely personal as we see the most private of moments between the characters (I do not mean just the sex scenes – private in every sense) and yet the story and its characters are universal. They are normal, unremarkable people who are made remarkable by their actions and the ways in which they live their lives. We come to love them as we do the people we know in real life. I still think of Sue and Maud from Fingersmith and Margaret from Affinity; I’m sure I will continue to think about Frances and Lillian.

The Paying Guests is classic Waters (drama, intrigue, period setting, lesbians, sex, single women, feminism) but it is also entirely new and modern. Though it has similar elements it doesn’t feel like anything she has written before, which is wonderful. I wish, wish, wish I could talk more about details of the plot, but has I had no idea of them when I started reading I think it would ruin the reading experience for anyone else. Though if you’ve read it I am dying to talk about it! Get me on Twitter.

So there you have it. Another amazing, beautiful novel from Sarah Waters. If you loved her other novels you will love this one too, but you will also love it even if you haven’t read the others. There’s a bit of something for everyone, I think, as the novel as so many different elements and facets, so many different types of story within it. I loved it.

Published by Virago (UK) on 28th August 2014. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Adventures in the 7th Century: Hild by Nicola Griffith

This post is part of the official blog tour for Hild.

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As a rule I like historical fiction, and when I think about it a lot of the historical fiction I’ve read has been set either in the early 20th century (including several things set during World War II), or only slight before that, i.e. the 18th and 19th centuries. But here we have a novel, an ‘epic’ no less, set in the 7th century. That’s a bit more historical isn’t it?

Hild by Nicola Griffith is based on the life of St Hilda of Whitby who lived c. 614 – 680. In this novel we see Hild grow from a precocious toddler, into a child, and into a woman. Her natural connection with nature and animals, as well as her particular way of observing the world, mean that from an early age people think of her a seer and some sort of prophet. Her father is the nephew of Edwin, King of Northumbria, and in her position as both the king’s niece and seer, she experiences the trials and tribulations of the court firsthand.

As the novel goes on, she becomes increasingly aware of the fact that as a member of the court, and especially as someone perceived to have some sort of power, she is constantly observed. At times this gives her confidence and authority, but at others it makes her tired and desperate for a ‘normal’ life. By her late teens she is known all over the north of England (and possibly the rest of mainland Britain) as someone who has visions, has the ear of the king, and could either kill you or make you part of her household. She is also quite tall for a girl and more than once is compared to a totem, which would also have given her an edge of power.

I say ‘would’. Though Hild was a real person, Nicola Griffith has been open about the fact that she had to invent the intricacies of her life*. Our only source about Hild is Bede, who writes mostly about her role in the Church (which came later). So, Griffith had to fill in the gaps in Hild’s life with her knowledge of the 7th century and of Edwin’s court (or at least how a court would have operated at the time). As the story is set so far into the past – 1400 years! – I think even the biggest stalwart for accuracy could forgive some creative licence here. While reading I did not think about this at all, as I was just enjoying the book so much and adored spending time with Hild, in her world.

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Worldbuilding is something usually associated with science fiction and fantasy, but it plays a very important role here too. For though Hild is set in our world, it is a totally different version of it, and it exists separate from us. It is Britain, but there is no government, no method of long-distance communication other than sending a messenger, and the notion of being ‘British’ means something entirely different. At this point England does not really exist, not as we know it anyway. In this sense it is alien, but to know that we came after this creates a deep connection to this period of history, in this book. The people in 7th century Britain are warriors, priests, housewives and servants – they were ‘us’ before we were. They are where we come from. Whether or not this is historically accurate I don’t know, but it’s how the book made me feel. The world that is created is entirely vivid and three-dimensional. It is a warm, visceral world in which life feels extremely real – and the same goes for the characters.

I was completely fascinated by Hild, partly because she was a real person but also because the character is so well developed. I was in awe of her for the entirety of the novel and willed her to succeed and survive, and be happy. I loved her relationships with Begu and Cian, as well as the complexity of her relationship with Gwladus.

In the early parts of the novel when Hild is very young, there is quite a dreamlike feeling to the text, which reminded me of Old English stories like ‘Gawain and the Green Knight’. Dreams were an important part of Hild’s reputation as a seer, a reputation that came from her mother’s dream, before Hild was born, of having a child that would be ‘the light of the world’. But as Hild gets older and more involved with court life, the book feels more and more real and believable in that sense. In the last third, without giving anything away, there is a quite a lot of drama and action, and Hild’s life begins to change, as do her relationships and her role in society. We inhabit the world of the novel with her and see things as she does, but there are also some incredible moments when we see her from someone else’s perspective – as this strange tall girl with so much mystery around her, someone they are slightly afraid of and don’t quite understand. She is a mystery to all but a few and has a very interesting role and status within society, as she is part of the court and related to the King, but her position depends upon her ability to ‘get things right’ and correctly ‘see’ what will happen. She is safe as long as she says what Edwin wants to hear.

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A question that was in the back of my mind throughout the novel, and that came to the forefront once I had finished it, was how to connect the Hild of the novel to the figure of St Hilda that we are aware of today. Hild is born into a pagan world where omens from birds and prayers to Woden govern people’s spirituality – a world connected to nature and things you could see and feel. And Hild herself is declared to be a seer, a prophet – something that doesn’t quite fit in with our image of Christianity.

In the 600s Christianity was still new to Britain, and was regarded as something strange and difficult to understand – which in turn is strange to us now, we who live in a world molded by the spread of Christianity. It is a religion that is not only known to us but one that has shaped the history and identity of our little Kingdom. So what would it be like to live in a world where Christianity is new and alien? Where its rituals and rules don’t seem to make sense, and where most people have no concept of sin or Satan? This is one of the most fascinating and brilliant elements of the novel, as we look back with our modern knowledge on these newly converted Christians still referring to ‘the Christ god’ and asking to be reminded what a sin is supposed to be. In a way I envy their freedom from our world that is still so governed by the rules and beliefs of organised religion. They have not experienced Catholic guilt, or disputes between denominations that lead to war, or rules that try to control how we live, who we love, and when and how we love them. Some readers have commented on the fact that Hild is attracted to both men and women, and asked questions about how this would have been perceived in her lifetime. Though it might have existed, in the novel we hear no objections to her being with women – though at one point she wonders if the Church will eventuallly try to control our personal lives. She dismisses the notion as irrelevant, but I couldn’t help feeling a sense of dread, knowing the later, and still current, opinions of the Church on how you conduct your personal life, and the effects and consequences that these rules can have. Just look at how religion influences abortion and birth control laws, and the investigation into the mother and baby homes run by the Church in Ireland. I was glad for Hild that she lived in her world.

In the end of course, she became a saint. As a teenager she was baptised with the rest of Edwin’s court, but by the end of the novel – at which point she must be in her late teens – she has not yet entirely dedicated herself to her new religion. Bede’s account states that she joined the Church officially in her early thirties, becoming a nun and going on to become Abbess of her own convent, for which she is known today. I would love to learn more of her path from being a newly baptised, still-quite-pagan teenager, into an Abbess and a saint.

Luckily, Nicola Griffith is already writing about the next stages of Hild’s life – so we may hear about how her role and her beliefs progressed, in some form. Of course we can only speculate, but if doing that produces such wonderful work as Hild, then I am all for it. As you can see I loved reading Hild, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the period, or the Medieval world, or indeed anyone who enjoys fantasy as it has some common elements. It is a very rich book, filled with life and passion, and humanity in all its glory and all its flaws. It is over 500 pages and took me a while to read, but I enjoyed languishing in Hild’s world and accompanying her on her journey. Don’t be put off by the length or the ‘seriousness’ of it – Hild is well worth the effort.

Published in the UK by Blackfriars Books on 24th July 2014. My copy as kindly provided by the publisher for review.

*You can read more about Nicola’s research and writing process on her blog. If you have a copy of Hild the Afterword also documents Nicola’s journey with Hild.

I also recommend this review of Hild over at She Reads Novels.