How could I resist a book that has been compared to both Alexandre Dumas and Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles? The Brethren is the first in Robert Merle’s thirteen-volume series, Fortunes of France, and sounded exactly like the sort of book I usually love! I was surprised to find that, despite being hugely successful in France when it was originally published between 1977 and 2003, the series is only now being made available in an English translation for the first time by Pushkin Press.
This first instalment introduces us to the de Siorac family and is set in the 16th century during the French Wars of Religion, a period of conflict between the Catholics and the Huguenots (Protestants). Our narrator is Pierre, the young son of Jean de Siorac, a former soldier who retires to the castle of Mespech in the Périgord region of France and establishes a small Huguenot community there with the help of his friend, Jean de Sauveterre. The two Jeans are such close friends that they formally adopt each other as brothers, becoming the ‘brethren’ of the title, but while they are united in their religious beliefs, they have very different personalities!
The adventures that follow are remembered by an older Pierre, looking back on his life. He tells us of the time the château of Mespech was attacked by a band of gypsies and of an attempt to rescue the family’s former maid from a plague-stricken town, as well as the more mundane tasks of haymaking and harvesting. We also get to know the other members of the household, from Pierre’s Catholic mother (whose refusal to convert is a source of discord within the family) and his wet-nurse’s mischievous daughter, Little Helix, to the superstitious cook, La Maligou, and the three veteran soldiers who have been with the two Jeans since their earliest military campaigns. Most of all, though, we follow the religious struggles taking place between Catholic and Huguenot, both within the walls of Mespech and throughout the whole of France.
I found The Brethren an enjoyable book, although it was not exactly what I had expected. It lacked the humour and flair of Dumas’ novels and the characters didn’t come to life the way Dunnett’s do, but I did still find plenty of things to love. The portrait of 16th century France is vivid and fascinating and I learned a lot about the religious wars, which I’ve never read about in so much detail before.
After finishing the book I was interested to discover that Robert Merle had written the originals using a form of 16th century French. The English edition, you may be relieved to hear, is not written in anything resembling 16th century English, but it does not really seem like an entirely modern translation either. This wasn’t a problem for me, as I do like books to have an old-fashioned feel, especially when I’m reading historical fiction. However, the writing does become quite dry in places and there’s not as much action as I would have hoped for, with a lot of time spent on discussions of religious treaties and detailed descriptions of battle strategies.
As Pierre is a young child throughout most of this novel and still only fifteen, I think, at the end, many of the things he tells us about are things he has not actually witnessed or taken part in personally. Instead, he gives us second-hand accounts of his father’s adventures, often drawing on Jean de Siorac’s journal, the Book of Reason. This has the effect of creating a distance between Pierre and the reader so that I found his narration slightly detached at times. But although Pierre didn’t pull me into the story as quickly as I would have liked, I did eventually become completely absorbed in the lives of the de Siorac family. I’m already looking forward to the second book and I hope Pushkin Press will continue to publish the rest of the series.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.