Truth revealed by time

Title page of Richard Greene's Pandosto (public domain: https://archive.org/details/dorastusfawnia00thomuoft
Title page of Richard Greene’s Pandosto (public domain: https://archive.org/details/dorastusfawnia00thomuoft

Charlie Lovett The Bookman’s Tale Alma Books 2013

What bibliophile could resist the allure of a title such as The Bookman’s Tale? And what lover of Elizabethan literature, or history, or whodunits, or ghost stories, or romance, could fail to be intrigued by a novel that promises to combine all these genres? Certainly not this reader, and I’m glad to report that — even with one or two caveats — I was not disappointed. In addition, we’re informed that the author is both writer and successful playwright, a former antiquarian bookseller and an ‘avid’ book collector who, with his wife, splits his time between North Carolina and Oxfordshire; so, with a novel that involves all these elements we naturally expect a novel that fully convinces us in terms of supporting details.

Peter Byerly is the antiquarian bookseller from North Carolina who retreats to his cottage in Kingham, Oxfordshire after the tragic death of his wife Amanda in the mid-nineties of the last century. When he finally emerges from his seclusion to visit his other love in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh Marches, he is shocked to discover a 19th-century watercolour of what appears to be his dead wife flutter from a classic tome on Shakespearean forgeries. Thus it is that the present collides, not just with his own past, but with that of his wife, a Victorian family feud, an 18th-century literary disaster and Shakespeare’s own times. Along the way there is murder most foul and deeds of darkness, a touching romance and a basic background to bookbinding. The whole centres around a first edition of Richard Greene’s 1588 novel Pandosto: the Triumph of Time which may or may not feature Shakespeare’s own marginal notes but which certainly inspired The Winter’s Tale (probably around 1611, though not published till 1623).

Edward Robert Hughes Idle Tears
Edward Robert Hughes Idle Tears

Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale both include elements that are reflected in The Bookman’s Tale: the lost wife, the long period of mourning by the widower, the artefact that imitates life so well that it may well be the original. But do not expect exact parallels; the modern novel’s best epitaph may be from the title page of Pandosto itself: “although by the meanes of sinister fortune Truth may be concealed, yet by Time in spight of fortune it is most manifestly revealed”.

I did enjoy this out-of-the-ordinary whodunit, the twists and turns, the interweave of episodes from the history of this first edition copy of Greene’s play. Peter’s inordinate shyness, perhaps an indication of him being on the autistic spectrum, is largely believable, his growing confidence and resourcefulness a sign of his emergence from the depression brought about by Amanda’s untimely death. Like most cozy mysteries — and, make no mistake, The Bookman’s Tale is in this tradition, despite its learning — the wrap-up of the denouement is neatly and satisfyingly done, even if lacking the messy resolution of real-life crime.

Only two little niggles blotted Lovett’s otherwise workmanlike plotting. I was not particularly convinced with the late 16th- and early 17th-century dialogue that greeted us in the earlier part of the novel (sample: “The glove-maker’s son is writing sonnets! Sonnets, can you imagine …”) nor by the ‘Elizabethan’ missive that appeared towards the end. But I suppose such treatment is preferable given the possible derision that might greet an attempt to reproduce the nuances of past speech, given the anachronistic mock-archaic language that has been produced by some popular writers of historical romance.

The other niggle concerns the differences between American and British English. Familiar with the linguistic environment of both milieus Lovett largely avoids the obvious faux amis such as drapes/curtains, motorway/highway and pants/trousers, but in allowing Peter’s English fellow sleuth Liz to happily dump the expected ‘torch’ in favour of ‘flashlight’ he briefly lets slip the mask of realism.

But you’ll be glad to know that such quibbles are swept aside by a hugely enjoyable tale, with primary characters in whom I was happy to invest sympathy and detail enough to evoke time and place. You can do worse than spare some hours immersing yourself in this, what the publishers call a ‘novel of obsession’ — for once, without much chance of contradiction.

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23 thoughts on “Truth revealed by time

    1. I rather dread recommending books — naturally not everyone shares my tastes or judgement — but as a pleasant enough way to pass the time and stimulate the old grey matter it’s as good as any. Just don’t be surprised by the solution as to ‘who done it’ as that’s flagged up quite early on; instead enjoy the ‘how’s it done’ aspect, if I were you!

      Lovett has also written an Austen-inspired whodunit which I’m very tempted by.

  1. That does seem a thoroughly satisfying tale.
    Translating English across the Atlantic can be a nightmare for an editor – I recently had a book featuring a diary written in English in Europe, while the main narration was from USA. This was riddled with traps for the unwary, in spelling and terminology both. Two different periods, too, so one had to be on the alert for anachronisms. I was taken by surprise a number of times, though – some apparently modern terminology is a lot more ancient than one would think.

    1. I agree with you, Col, over many ‘modern’ phrases and meanings having a surprising longevity. Though I use search engines a lot I wouldn’t be without my Brewer, word usage reference books, etymological dictionaries and, primary source these, classic texts. Long gone are the days when this callow youth tried not to read too widely for fear it would ‘cramp his style’ — now I can’t get enough of it, though I still haven’t started that magnum opus …

      1. Also, the wider one’s reading the less likely it becomes that one will fall, subconsciously, under too strong an influence from the style of a writer one particularly enjoys.

    1. Hope you enjoy it too, Nikki — I’ll of course be looking forward to your views on it!

      And huzzah for libraries, too! Ever since I got involved with the local Friends of the library committee I’ve rediscovered the joys of having one of these on my doorstep (as it were) and borrow on a regular basis books like this which I’d think thrice about buying. (Not that I don’t buy books, I hasten to add!)

  2. Sounds like an enjoyable read – right up my street too. Premise sounds good too – I’ll look out for it. A great review, thank you
    I have sympathy with the dodgy language issue – as someone who has written a YA novel partly set in Tudor England, I had real issues with where to pitch the Tudor-risms. Too many ‘thees’ and ‘thous’ and it sounds rather jokey. In the end I settled for introducing the odd Elizabethan word – ‘privy’, ‘aye’ and ‘nay’ etc – and a slight change in syntax.
    Made my life all the more complicated by having another section set in Roman Gaul circa 200 AD. I mean, what were Roman – Gaulish accents like? Aside from references to the gods, and the odd other word (mitte, testudo etc) how do you make the dialogue sounds reasonable and not hokey?
    Not sure I have it right, even now 🙂

    1. I look at Shakespeare’s porter at the gate, gravedigger, rude mechanicals and all and wonder what ‘street’ language he’s capturing — Tudor cockney? Warwickshire yokel? — and wondering also how the hell one would pitch it in a modern novel without a tame philologist like David Crystal to hand. I don’t envy you, Lynn. Perhaps I’d have to read more Jacobean dramatists like Webster or Marlowe to start to get a handle on it all.

      As for Romano-Gaulish, where to start, saving with Asterix books? Are we talking north or south Gaul? I know that you can gauge a bit from changing vowels in Roman funerary inscriptions of a slightly later century: compared to classical Latin, Celtic dialect in the 6C would change HIC IACET (‘here lies’) to IC IACIT on occasion, but you’d need to know a lot about archaic pronunciation to get it even vaguely authentic. Much better, as you’re ‘translating’ into modern English, to imagine it — ‘ow you say? — a modern Frenchman or Frenchwoman would drop aitches and purify English diphthongs.

      Sorry, rabbiting on a bit …

      1. Not rabbiting at all – it’s really interesting. That’s what I need – a tame philologist. Is there a scheme where I can apply for one? It’s difficult, because the advice you’re given when writing dialogue is not to have too many dropped letters or words altered to reflect pronunciation, or it can come across as distracting, hakneyed and difficult to read-
        ‘Ey -oop ar lad, coom daant pit and bring tha wepppit.’ etc! (That’s not an attempt at Roman Gaulish or Tudor English, by the way)
        It’s south Gaul, but complicated by the fact that the main character is actually from present day England (so, of course, only learns to communicate with the locals gradually.)
        Maybe I’ll just write something set in the present day next time 🙂

        1. Yes, you’re right, too much approximation of non-RP or deviation from Standard English puts readers off and can even alienate the speakers of those dialects if incorrectly done (don’t mention the variations even within regional accents!). I suppose the safe way is to hint at the dialect, language or speech patterns without going overboard.

          1. Yep, I think you’re right – nothing more awful than reading (or hearing) a poorly executed attempt at an accent. E.g. almost any attempt you can think of at English accents in Hollywood blockbuster movies – ergh!
            Thanks – a really interesting discussion. 🙂

      2. And I often wonder how close Shakespeare and company came to reproducing the ‘real’ English of the day. His characters often spoke in rhyme, after all. And do you think Elizabethans (and people from other eras) used contractions? I’ve always assumed so – humans are so lazy, after all

        1. My recollection is that the groundlings spoke in prose while the nobility and mercantile classes spouted blank verse, with the occasional rhyming couplet to indicate the end of a scene (“… the play’s the thing | In which I’ll catch the conscience of the King!”). Clowns, in particular, must have had lines which followed everyday speech patterns, even if they freely improvised around these to entertain the groundlings.

          Contractions? Yes, I’m sure — an’t please you.

          1. I’d never thought of it before – being no Shakepeare scholar – but, of course, the nobility speak differently from the commoners. And clowns – yes, they must have in part been written to appeal directly to the ‘ordinary’ folk – the comic relief, especially in a Tragedy, as with the porter.
            I’m hoping that modern 14 – 16 year olds won’t be expecting ‘proper’ Elizabethan speech – or I’m in trouble! 🙂

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