Jill Rowan The Legacy Snowbooks 2011
Folktales and ballads often recount the fantasy of a fairy abduction or visit to the Otherworld where both reality and time are suspended until the human visitor returns to their own world. Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court gave this trope a time-travel twist by using the story as a means of satirising contemporary mores, perceptions and attitudes. Jill Rowan has given this by now well-worn motif a further twist: her protagonist, Fallady Galbraith, visits a kind of fairyland (the late 18th century), leading her to re-appraise her personal philosophy, her perceptions of life lived then and her attitudes to class, gender issues, education and love. How she copes with the possibility that she mayn’t return to 2008 while yet enamoured of her ‘fairy lover’, a country parson, is the mainspring of the plot and the conflict she has to resolve.
I liked the idea too that the Otherworld (whatever form it takes) involves passing through a metaphysical No Man’s Land, symbolised by the story being set in the Welsh Marches in a ruined village which is, in a sense, neither England or Wales, and that this inbetween-state allows one the opportunity to observe the peculiarities of either side of the divide, whether in language, class, gender politics or urban as opposed to rural life.
I’m not the first to see this as an ingenious genre-crossing novel: there are elements not only of romance but also of a comedy of errors, historical observation, the supernatural, science fiction and fantasy, and this mix makes this an unusual but also strangely satisfying debut novel. Strictly speaking I would be surprised at an eighteenth-century country parson’s relative liberalism, but this is a minor criticism when balanced against a very readable narrative. Of necessity slow to start with, the novel picks up pace and becomes a real page-turner once Fallady’s acceptance of a possible permanent life in the past is established. Jill Rowan has transformed her modern take on the Visit to the Otherworld into a contemplation of what matters most in life, and her conclusion is that it is loving relationships.
But don’t assume this is a one-dimensional historical romance; like Twain, Rowan gives the novel added richness by her willingness to suggest contentious notions: is there really a God, is there such a thing as Destiny, and is there intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe? But like a good author she doesn’t allow you to presume that the views of her protagonist Fallady are merely those of an alter ego, with a ‘message’ to impart; after all, this is fiction. And a jolly good read it is.