A circuitous tale

Godstow nunnery ruins 1784 (credit: http://thames.me.uk/s01860.htm)

Ariana Franklin: The Death Maze
(published as The Serpent’s Tale in the US)
Bantam Books 2008

With a first name reminiscent of Ariadne it’s hardly surprising that the author penned a novel about a labyrinth, nor that the figure at the centre of intricate paths should sit there like a bloated spider (aranea is Latin for this arthropod). As is appropriate for a medieval whodunit Franklin’s novel ensnares characters and readers in a web of lies and false leads as it draws towards its close and the final trap.

Based on a popular medieval legend, The Death Maze is set in the late 12th century and involves Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund Clifford. She was said to have been housed in a labyrinth at Woodstock, where reputedly she was poisoned on the orders of Queen Eleanor (herself captive in France) and later buried at the nearby nunnery of Godstow.

Franklin takes the bare bones of this story and weaves a circuitous tale of detection and deceit around and through it. But our principal concern is not for Fair Rosamund (not as fair as we might think) but for Adelia Aguilar, a Sicilian anatomist who is drawn against her will into investigating the crime for the King himself.

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Fixing moments in time

Raven from Sutton Hoo shield

John Preston: The Dig
Penguin 2008 (2007)

“Why don’t you tell me what made you become interested in photography?”
“I suppose it seemed a way of trying to fix moments as they went past. To try to capture them and give them some physical existence. Stop them from being lost for ever. Not that it necessarily works like that.”

Summer, 1939. Eight decades ago, with the prospect of war in the offing, a dig at the site of some mysterious mounds in Suffolk was under way. We now know that Sutton Hoo was the site of the largest ever ship burial in Britain, with the most unimaginably magnificent treasure forming the grave goods of a king of the East Angles. But when landowner Edith Pretty asked for an archaeologist to excavate the mounds nobody was prepared for what was to emerge from inside one of them, known as Mound 1.

What John Preston aimed for here was an imaginative reconstruction of those momentous events. While taking some major liberties with the timeline — sequences are occasionally telescoped — and inventing the odd individual he has nevertheless managed to conjure up a believable series of fictional accounts by key players for the novel’s backbone. In fact Diggers would be just as apt a title as The Dig has proved to be.

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Distressed damsels

Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr Tydfil

Rosemary Craddock: Avalon Castle
Robert Hale 2015

1867. It’s almost halfway through Victoria’s reign, the American Civil War has not long finished and nouveau-riche industrialists are creating castellated Gothic residences to suggest spurious ancient heritages. From Cyfarthfa Castle (1840) in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales to King Arthur’s Castle Hotel (1899, now the Camelot Castle Hotel) near Tintagel, Cornwall these bastardised edifices stand as monuments to limited imaginations and dubious tastes.

Avalon Castle in Worcestershire is just such an edifice in this mystery romance laced with murder and intrigue by Staffordshire author Rosemary Craddock. Along with family secrets, suspicious deaths, concealed rooms and hidden drawers we have faint Arthurian echoes: damsels in distress and a lady in the lake, for example.

As suits this genre there are also stereotypes out of the pages of Jane Austen, the Brontës and Georgette Heyer, even fairytales such as ‘Bluebeard’, rubbing shoulders with railways, the telegraph and the arms industry.

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Childhood’s dreams

Vanessa Tait: The Looking Glass House
Corvus 2016 (2015)

Alice! A childish story take,
And with a gentle hand,
Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined
In Memory’s mystic band,
Like pilgrim’s withered wreath of flowers
Plucked in far-off land.

That “childish story” composed “all in the golden afternoon” that has been the springboard for so many studies, films and novels receives a new treatment in Vanessa Tait’s The Looking Glass House: the wellspring of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is told almost entirely from the point of view of the Liddell sisters’ governess, Mary Prickett, about whom we know relatively little.

What gives added interest to this version is that the author is the great-granddaughter of Alice herself, with access to documents and family traditions from which to draw. Ultimately, though, the question is whether this stands on its own as a piece of fiction in its own right.

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Home from the sea

Morpho eugenia MHNT male (Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMorpho_eugenia_MHNT_male_dos.jpg
Morpho eugenia MHNT male (Credit:
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMorpho_eugenia_MHNT_male_dos.jpg

A S Byatt Angels & Insects
Vintage 1995 (1992)

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill. — R S Stevenson

I find I have contradictory feelings for Byatt’s fiction: I strongly admire what she writes, for its stimulating ideas, its in-depth research, its clever structuring and its examination of human nature; but I can’t say that I love the handful of her novels that I’ve read. It’s not that they seem preponderantly intellectual — I don’t think that’s necessarily a turn-off — but rather that I don’t always believe in, let alone warm to, the characters she depicts.

That certainly is the case with Angels & Insects, a pair of loosely-linked novellas set in the 19th century and infused with some of the obsessions that characterised that age. ‘Morpho Eugenia’ and ‘The Conjugial Angel’ deal respectively with the Victorian urge to explore and catalogue that gave rise to that era’s expansion of knowledge and understanding in the biological sciences and, in an opposite direction, a rush towards spiritualism, séances and beliefs in otherworldly beings. Along the way we encounter lonely individuals ensconced in the bosom of family or among companions, taboos broken in the midst of Christian communities, grief and loss suffered in comfortable surroundings. Readers may feel sympathy for those who suffer in such circumstances but I wonder whether they really know or even care about them?

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Metamorphosis

Kleeblatt: Eva Braun's monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt)
Kleeblatt: Eva Braun’s monogram as a four leaf clover (vierblättriges Kleeblatt) on a fork handle

Phyllis Edgerly Ring The Munich Girl:
a novel of the legacies that outlast war

Whole Sky Books 2015

It is the mid 1990s. Anna is stuck in a loveless and childless marriage with Lowell. In the New Hampshire house left to her by her mother she feels like a mere adjunct to his academic life, his forthcoming study on the Second World War and his publishing business which issues The Fighting Chance, a military history magazine. An adjunct, that is, until he invites her to contribute an article about Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress; it is to furnish the female angle for the forthcoming special issue of the magazine designed to coincide with the publication of Lowell’s book. And it is at this point that everything changes for her: she gets a chance to become a butterfly on the wing instead of a lowly caterpillar crawling beneath.

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Two societies, two cultures, two lives

caldicot

Kevin Crossley-Holland Arthur: the Seeing Stone Orion Publishing 2001 (2000)

If you haven’t read this then you may be in for a treat. Following its publication in hardback it deservedly won the Smarties Prize bronze medal and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 2001. Everything that the reviewers quoted at the front of the paperback say is spot on. So why the accolades?

This Arthur is living in the Welsh Marches as the 12th century turns into the thirteenth. His life is paralleled by the young Arthur of legend, Continue reading “Two societies, two cultures, two lives”