After reading Lady of Hay I said I wouldn’t be looking for any more of Barbara Erskine’s novels, but I couldn’t resist this latest one with its unusual title, pretty cover and intriguing synopsis! And actually, Sleeper’s Castle was a pleasant surprise; I enjoyed it much more than any of the other books I’ve read by Erskine.
Despite its name, Sleeper’s Castle is not really a castle; it’s a house near Hay-on-Wye, close to the border between England and Wales. For several years it has been home to Sue and her cat, Pepper, but when Sue decides to go back to Australia she offers her friend, Miranda, the chance to live in Sleeper’s Castle rent-free for a year in return for looking after the house and the cat. Miranda – who prefers to be known as Andy – has been going through a difficult time following the death of her partner, Graham, and is delighted to have the opportunity to get away from London for a while. She looks forward to resuming her career as an illustrator in the peace of the Welsh countryside, safe in the knowledge that Rhona – the jealous, vicious wife Graham never divorced – will never be able to find her now.
As soon as she moves into Sleeper’s Castle, Andy knows she is going to love her new home. It’s an old house, with a history dating back hundreds of years, so at first Andy is not surprised when she begins to have vivid dreams involving a young woman called Catrin who lived at Sleeper’s Castle around the year 1400. Catrin is the daughter of another dreamer – Dafydd, a bard and seer – and as she travels around Wales with her father, entertaining at the castles of his patrons, she finds herself caught up in Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against the English.
Most of Barbara Erskine’s books are described as time slip novels and this one really lives up to that description, with the narrative slipping seamlessly from one time period to another so that the boundaries between past and present gradually start to blur. It’s not only Andy who is aware that something unusual is occurring; while she can see into the past, Catrin can also glimpse the future. Less convincingly, there’s also a sort of psychic connection between Andy and Rhona which draws the two women together against their will.
Catrin’s story is fascinating and I could understand why Andy was captivated by it. I have to admit, I know almost nothing about Owain Glyndŵr other than that he is considered a Welsh hero for his attempt to free Wales from the rule of Henry IV, so it was good to have the opportunity to add to my knowledge. As most of the characters in the historical sections of the novel are fictional, however, and Glyndŵr himself appears only occasionally, this book serves as a starting point to finding out more rather than exploring the period in any real depth.
The present day storyline was entertaining too – I loved Bryn the gardener, Meryn the healer and Pepper the cat – but it was spoiled slightly by the Rhona subplot. Rhona’s behaviour becomes so malicious and threatening that I really couldn’t believe Andy didn’t call the police and I couldn’t accept her reasons for not doing so. Very frustrating!
Much has been made of the fact that this book is being published to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Barbara Erskine’s first novel, Lady of Hay, and is set in the same part of the world. Sleeper’s Castle is not a sequel and it’s not necessary to have read Lady of Hay first; this is an enjoyable book in its own right and I’m glad I decided to give Barbara Erskine another chance to impress me.