Small Island by Andrea Levy

Small Island Last year I read The Long Song, Andrea Levy’s novel about life on a sugar plantation in 19th century Jamaica. Small Island is a very different book and didn’t initially sound as appealing to me, but now that I’ve read both, this is definitely my favourite of the two.

Set in London in 1948 but with flashbacks to other times and places, Small Island follows the story of two couples, one British (Queenie and Bernard) and one Jamaican (Hortense and Gilbert). After a brief prologue, the first character we get to know is Hortense. Having been raised by her father’s rich relatives, Hortense is a well-mannered and well-educated young Jamaican woman. With Jamaica still a British colony (it wouldn’t gain independence until 1962), Hortense is desperate to see the ‘mother country’ she has heard so much about and when she marries Gilbert Joseph she has a chance to do just that.

Gilbert, who had volunteered with the RAF during World War II, has found it difficult to settle back into life in Jamaica and is planning to return to Britain where he believes there will be more opportunities. Arriving in London, he rents a room in a house belonging to Queenie Bligh, a white Englishwoman he previously met during the war, and Hortense joins him there a few months later. Queenie’s husband, Bernard, also in the RAF, has still not returned from the war, and Queenie has been taking in lodgers to help pay the bills. But when Bernard finally does come home, he is not at all pleased to find black people living in his house.

Through the eyes of these four very different men and women we watch the stories of life on two ‘small islands’ unfold – Britain and Jamaica. From the perspectives of Hortense and Gilbert we share the disappointment and bewilderment of two immigrants discovering that their new country is not quite what they had expected and facing a level of prejudice and discrimination they were unprepared for. In Bernard and Queenie we see how the attitudes of the white British people towards black immigrants range from overt racism and intolerance in Bernard’s case to a more open-minded attitude in Queenie’s (sadly most of the people Hortense and Gilbert meet tend to share Bernard’s views rather than Queenie’s). While things have changed a lot since the 1940s, these are obviously issues that are still important and relevant today, and it was interesting to read four such different points of view.

I was impressed by the way Levy manages to give each character a distinctive voice of his or her own (though I shouldn’t have been surprised after reading The Long Song, which also has a protagonist with a very strong narrative voice). The book is structured so that each of the four has a chance to narrate their part of the story, going back into the past to talk about their childhood and their experiences before and during the war. My favourite character was Gilbert, though I did enjoy the sections narrated by Queenie and Hortense too. I found Bernard’s section the least interesting, not just because I didn’t like him, but also because the story of his wartime experiences in India didn’t feel very relevant to the rest of the novel.

Apart from being bored with Bernard’s story, my only other problem was the ending, which I thought relied too heavily on coincidences to bring the novel to its conclusion. Other than that, I loved this book! I know Andrea Levy has written three other novels as well as Small Island and The Long Song, and although I haven’t heard much about any of them I do want to investigate at some point.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

Ross PoldarkI’ve often thought about reading the Poldark novels but there was always some reason why I didn’t; it never felt like the right time to start a twelve volume series or I could only find copies of the later books and not the first one. I had been aware that the BBC were making a new adaptation to be shown this year but I had forgotten about it until seeing a trailer a few weeks ago. That left me with a dilemma as the first episode is being shown on Sunday and obviously I wouldn’t have time to read the whole series by then. But I could at least read the first book and that is what I’ve done.

Ross Poldark is set in 18th century Cornwall (in fact, it is subtitled A Novel of Cornwall 1783-1787). At the beginning of the novel, Ross Poldark returns home from fighting in America to discover that things have changed in his absence. His father has died, leaving his estate, Nampara, to Ross – and Elizabeth, the woman he loves, has just become engaged to his cousin, Francis. With his heart broken, Ross devotes his time to restoring Nampara, which has fallen into disrepair having been left in the hands of the servants, and investigating the possibility of opening a new copper mine.

Life is not easy for Ross – as well as managing his father’s lazy, drunken servants, Jud and Prudie, and dealing with the problems of the tenants and workers who live on the estate, he also has to cope with seeing Francis and Elizabeth together at family gatherings. Then one day, Ross rescues fourteen-year-old Demelza Carne from a brawl at the fair and brings her home to work in his kitchen. With an age difference of ten years, the relationship between Ross and Demelza is at first one of master and servant, but as time goes by a friendship forms and Ross will eventually discover whether or not he is able to love again.

When I began to read Ross Poldark last weekend I thought I might have started it too late to finish by Sunday, but I needn’t have worried; I found it so easy to get into and the story so compelling that it turned out to be a very quick read. I loved the Cornish setting; I won’t comment on the accuracy of the descriptions or the dialect, not being from Cornwall myself, but I thought the overall sense of time and place was very strong. Although they’re quite different stories, the setting and the mining element made me think of another book I enjoyed: Penmarric by Susan Howatch.

As the title character, this is very much Ross Poldark’s story (and Ross is the sort of hero I could immediately like and care about, right from the moment he arrives home to find that the woman to whom he was planning to propose is marrying his cousin) but I found Demelza an even more intriguing character. She changes quite a lot over the four or five years the novel covers and she does slowly grow in confidence, yet never quite shakes off her insecurities and her feeling that the Poldarks are looking down on her because of her background. She is still just in her teens when the novel ends and I’m sure there will be more development to come in the second book. I also liked Verity, Ross’s cousin, and found her personal storyline as interesting as Ross and Demelza’s.

As well as the main characters, there are also lots of memorable secondary characters representing all different levels of society, from the Poldarks and their friends to the farmers and miners who work for them. Quite a lot of time is devoted to the servants Jud and Prudie, and also to one of Ross’s young tenants, Jinny Martin, and two rivals for her love, farm boy Jim Carter and the villainous Reuben Clemmow. Whenever the focus switches to these characters, it provides a diversion from the main plot, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, as well as showing us how Ross handles the problems on his estate and interacts with the people around him.

At the end of this book there are still a lot of unresolved storylines and loose ends and I’m looking forward to continuing the series with the second book, Demelza.

The Royalist by S.J. Deas

The Royalist As someone who loves both historical fiction and mysteries, it’s not surprising that I also enjoy historical mysteries! If the book has an interesting and unusual setting, as this one has, even better.

The Royalist is the first in a planned series featuring the character of William Falkland. Falkland, as the title suggests, is a Royalist and has been fighting for King Charles in the English Civil War. As the novel begins in 1645, he has been captured by Parliamentarians and is in Newgate Prison awaiting his fate. When after several months of imprisonment a guard comes to take him from his cell, he is convinced that the day of his execution has arrived at last. To his surprise, though, he is taken instead to a meeting with Oliver Cromwell, the man with whom Parliament’s hopes of victory lie.

It seems that Cromwell has learned of a previous occasion on which Falkland stood up to his King to see that a criminal was brought to justice – and he is now hoping that Falkland will be able to solve a second crime, this time within Cromwell’s own New Model Army. Large, well-trained and highly disciplined, the New Model Army has been created with the aim of bringing a rapid end to the war. However, with men being pressed into the army regardless of their religious or political beliefs, discontent, disloyalty, fear and resentment are widespread. At the army’s winter camp in the town of Crediton in Devon, three young soldiers appear to have committed suicide – but why? This is what Falkland must agree to find out, in return for his own life.

I enjoyed The Royalist; it’s a very atmospheric book, taking us from a dark, cramped prison cell right into the heart of an army camp in the middle of a cold, harsh winter. This is the unusual setting I mentioned earlier; I’ve read other novels set during the Civil War, but none that focus specifically on the New Model Army. I knew almost nothing about the army before starting this book, and I found it fascinating, particularly the fact that even former Royalists were recruited, often against their will. It was also interesting to read about the ways in which the people of Crediton were affected by the army moving into their town and forcing them out of their homes.

This is not a book about an army on the move so there are (fortunately, in my opinion) no long battle scenes or discussions of military tactics; this is a book about an army that is stationary, based in one place, biding its time. That doesn’t mean there’s no action, of course! As Falkland continues to investigate and begins to uncover the truth about the young men who have died, he finds that he himself is in danger. There’s a lot of suspense as he explores the camp and its buildings in the dead of night, examines the tree where the three soldiers allegedly took their own lives, and tries to decide who can and cannot be trusted.

As the novel’s narrator, Falkland is the character we get to know best, but I still felt that there was plenty of information about his past that he was withholding from us and could reveal in a future novel. There are other interesting characters too: Thomas Fairfax, for example, the commander of the New Model Army and known as ‘Black Tom’ – one of the few real historical figures to appear in the book. There’s also Kate Cain, a woman who has refused to leave Crediton, and with whom Falkland lodges during his time in the town. And I was particularly intrigued by the character of Henry Warbeck, the man given the job of escorting Falkland to the army camp, as I discovered that there was more to him than met the eye at first.

I’m now looking forward to reading the second William Falkland novel, The Protector, which will be out later this year.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and the White “Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them. This city I am bringing you to is vast and intricate, and you have not been here before. You may imagine, from other stories you’ve read, that you know it well, but those stories flattered you, welcoming you as a friend, treating you as if you belonged. The truth is that you are an alien from another time and place altogether.”

With these words the unnamed narrator of The Crimson Petal and the White takes us by the hand and leads us on a journey into the depths of Victorian London where we meet a cast of fascinating, diverse characters from all levels of society. One of these is Sugar, a nineteen-year-old prostitute who is writing a novel in her spare time and is prepared to do whatever it takes to improve her situation in life. Another is William Rackham, heir to a perfumery business, who seeks out Sugar after seeing her name listed in More Sprees in London, a guide to the city’s pleasures. From their first meeting at Mrs Castaway’s brothel, a chain of events is set in motion that will change not only Sugar’s life but William’s too.

Sugar is a wonderful character and I came to love her over the course of the book. She’s intelligent, well-read and ambitious and although she sometimes makes mistakes and is not always very ‘nice’, it’s impossible not to sympathise with her and want to see her succeed. I should warn you that Sugar’s story is not a pleasant or comfortable one to read and her work as a prostitute is described in a lot of detail, often quite explicitly. However, I didn’t think it ever felt gratuitous and it all helped to build up a picture of what Sugar’s life was like and to look at the issue of prostitution in a way that 19th century authors didn’t have the freedom to do.

While Sugar is our heroine, there’s another woman who is given almost as much time in the novel – William’s beautiful wife, Agnes Rackham, who is suffering from an illness that is causing delusions, fits and irrational behaviour. We, the readers, know what is wrong with Agnes but as far as her husband is concerned, she is insane. As her story develops, Agnes becomes almost as complex and interesting a character as Sugar, though less sympathetic. Another subplot follows William’s brother, Henry, who has turned down a position in the family business to become a clergyman and has fallen in love with Emmeline Fox, a widow who works for the Rescue Society, an organisation which helps to reform prostitutes. Through the lives of all of these characters and others, Faber is able to explore many different aspects of Victorian society.

The novel is divided into five parts, with section headings ranging from The Streets to The World at Large, giving us some clues as to how Sugar’s story is going to progress. Her rise in the world is great to watch but exactly how she does it is something I’d prefer to leave future readers to discover for themselves – assuming that I’m not the last person to read this book, which is how it feels sometimes! Like The Book Thief which I finally read earlier this month, this is another book I’ve been meaning to read for years and I can’t really explain why it has taken me so long, especially as the Victorian period is one of my favourites.

I loved this book and thought it was beautifully written, but I did have one problem with it – the end. I’m sure I’m not the first person and won’t be the last to have been disappointed by the ending. After reading more than 800 pages, I was hoping for more resolution to the story. I know there’s a book of short stories, The Apple, which is a sort of sequel but I’ve seen mixed opinions of it. If you’ve read it, please let me know if you would recommend it!

Bellarion by Rafael Sabatini

Bellarion This was the book chosen for me in the Classics Club Spin last November. I was supposed to post my review by the 4th January, but Christmas, other books and life in general got in the way of finishing it on time. Well, better late than never!

Rafael Sabatini is best known as the author of Scaramouche, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, but he also wrote more than thirty other books including this one, Bellarion – or Bellarion the Fortunate, to give it its original title. Bellarion was published in 1926 but, like most of Sabatini’s novels, it is set much earlier – in Renaissance Italy, in fact: a world of warring city states, tyrannical dukes and beautiful princesses, of powerful condottieri and bands of mercenary soldiers, of sieges and battles, poisonings and conspiracies.

Our hero, Bellarion, is an intelligent but naïve young man who has been raised in the monastery of Cigliano and believes that there is no such thing as sin. Shocked by his heretical ideas, the abbot sends him off to university in Pavia, hoping that he will learn something about the world while he is there. Almost as soon as Bellarion leaves the abbey, he becomes the victim of a bandit pretending to be a friar. With his money and letter of introduction stolen from him, and wrongly accused of being the bandit’s accomplice, Bellarion flees to the Palace of Casale in Montferrat where the Princess Valeria agrees to protect him.

Montferrat is currently under the rule of Valeria’s uncle Theodore, who is acting as Regent until her brother, Gian Giacomo, is old enough to take his rightful place as Marquis. When Bellarion uncovers a plot by Theodore to destroy his nephew and keep the throne for himself, he becomes entangled in a complex web of conspiracy and intrigue that will lead him to the Duchy of Milan and the court of its cruel and brutal young duke, Gian Maria Visconti.

Under the command of the famous condottiero (mercenary leader), Facino Cane, Bellarion quickly rises to become one of the greatest military captains of his time, finding that brains and quick wit can make up for a lack of physical ability and clever strategies and trickery can often work where strength and force fail. Even as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the affairs of Milan, Bellarion never forgets that everything he does is for the benefit of Montferrat and his beloved Princess Valeria. Unfortunately, Valeria has completely misinterpreted his motives and is convinced that Bellarion is her enemy rather than her friend. It seems that all his efforts could be in vain…

I loved this book, as I expected to, having enjoyed two of Sabatini’s others. Scaramouche is still my favourite, but I think I preferred this one to Captain Blood, mainly because I find stories set on land easier to read than stories set at sea! You do still need to concentrate, though, to be able to untangle the complicated political situations in Milan and Montferrat, to follow the rivalries between the two factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and to keep track of who is conspiring against whom. Also, because Bellarion is building a career for himself as a military leader, there are lots of battle scenes (large scale battles rather than the more intimate one-on-one sword fighting scenes in Scaramouche). If you’re like me and are often tempted to skip long battles and discussions of military strategies, you can’t do that here – you need to read them all carefully so that you can appreciate Bellarion’s genius!

I did have mixed feelings about Bellarion himself. There’s no doubt that he’s a fascinating character; his rapid transformation from a naive, unworldly young man to a great military commander and political mastermind is great to watch. At the beginning, with his mixture of youthful enthusiasm, innocence and intelligence, he reminded me of d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers; later, after rising from nowhere to become a trusted leader and master schemer, he reminded me not just of d’Artagnan but also Nicholas de Fleury from Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dunnett had read this book; there’s a scene with a captured supply train that made me think of The Game of Kings.)

However, there was something about Bellarion that stopped me from really warming to him as a character. I thought he was a little bit too clever and too aware of his own cleverness. You could say the same, I suppose, about Sabatini’s other heroes, Andre-Louis Moreau and Peter Blood, but they also had flaws and vulnerabilities that made them feel more human and more believable. I never felt that I really needed to fear for Bellarion; whatever difficult situation he got himself into I had no doubt that he would come out of it unscathed. I didn’t like Valeria much either – she annoyed me with her total misreading of Bellarion’s motives and the way she always thought the worst of him. To be fair to Valeria, though, she didn’t have the knowledge that we, the reader, had!

Bellarion is a fictional character, but many of the others in the novel are based on real historical figures. Characters such as Theodore of Montferrat, Facino Cane and his wife Beatrice, Gian Maria Visconti of Milan, and Bellarion’s rival condottiero, the Count of Carmagnola, are all people who really existed – although as I don’t know much about this particular period of history I wasn’t sure how much of the story was based on fact and how much on fiction until I did some research after finishing the book!

Despite not really caring for the main characters I did enjoy this book (another Classics Spin success!) and am looking forward to reading the other Sabatini novel on my Classics Club list, The Sea Hawk.

Fair Helen by Andrew Greig

Fair Helen Last year I started a little project of my own – which I don’t think I ever actually blogged about – to work through the titles shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since it began in 2010. So far I’ve discovered some great books including An Officer and a Spy, Harvest and The Garden of Evening Mists. This book, Fair Helen, is another one that I’ve enjoyed and might never have thought about reading otherwise.

Fair Helen, by Scottish author Andrew Greig, is a beautifully written novel based on the Border ballad, Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea which begins:

“O that I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
O that I were where Helen lies,
On fair Kirkconnel Lea.”

The ballad goes on to tell of two rivals for Helen’s love, a shot being fired and Helen falling dead into her lover’s arms. In Fair Helen, Andrew Greig offers one possible interpretation of this ballad, retelling some of its events and expanding on it to include other aspects of Scottish history and Border folklore.

In the late 16th century, when the novel is set, ‘Jamie Saxt’ (King James VI) is on the throne of Scotland, while England’s Queen Elizabeth is approaching old age with no heir of her own. Soon the two thrones will be united under James, bringing some sort of peace and order to the Border region. In the meantime, though, the Borders remain a wild and dangerous place where clans of reivers on both sides of the English-Scottish border fight and feud, steal cattle and conduct raids.

Adam Fleming, whose stepfather is ‘heidsman’ (leader) of the Flemings, has fallen in love with the beautiful Helen Irvine of Annandale. Unfortunately, Helen has already been betrothed to another man, Robert Bell, because the Irvines are keen to form an alliance with the Bell family. Adam has no intention of ending his romance with Helen and summons an old friend from his student days, Harry Langton, to help arrange their secret trysts.

Harry is the narrator of Fair Helen, looking back on the events of the past from several decades into the future, and he is the ideal person to tell the story, being Adam’s best friend and Helen’s cousin. But Harry is also working for another, more powerful patron – someone who has plans of his own for the Borders and will have no sympathy for two young lovers who get in the way of his plans.

I was surprised by how much Andrew Greig managed to pack into the story. I was expecting a tragic romance (according to the cover, the ballad is sometimes described as the Scottish Romeo and Juliet) but it was so much more than that. In fact, the story of Adam and Helen is only one part of the story, no more or less important than the Border politics, the complex feuds and alliances between the clans, and the plotting and scheming going on behind the scenes. There’s a lot happening in this book, yet the pace never feels too rushed.

I always enjoy reading about the Border Reivers, as I live quite close to the Borders (on the English side), but so far I’ve found very few novels that deal with the subject. As I read Fair Helen I kept thinking of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Disorderly Knights – some of the same Borders families appear in both books, such as the Scotts of Buccleuch, and in both there is a dramatic Hot Trod (a lawful pursuit of a raiding party). I wish more authors would choose to write historical fiction based on this fascinating time and place in history – or maybe there are lots of books already and I just haven’t discovered them yet. I do have some non-fiction books on my list for future reading!

I’ve already mentioned how beautiful Andrew Greig’s writing is but I think it deserves to be mentioned again as it really is lovely and poetic, filled with feeling and emotion. The language used is suitable for the 16th century, with no inappropriately modern phrases finding their way into the dialogue to spoil things (one of my pet hates with historical fiction). Harry’s narration is written in the Scots dialect, which also adds to the authenticity. Definitions of unfamiliar words are not given directly in the text – you can usually work them out from the context of the sentence or if not, you can look them up in the glossary at the end of the book. Unless, of course, you’re Scottish in which case it shouldn’t be a problem at all!

Andrew Greig has written six other novels as well as some non-fiction and poetry. If you’ve read any of his other books, please let me know which you would recommend.

The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding

The Girl Who Couldn't Read Three years ago I read John Harding’s Florence and Giles and loved it, so I was pleased to find a copy of The Girl Who Couldn’t Read in the library. It’s a sequel and will make more sense if you’ve read Florence and Giles first, but don’t worry if you haven’t because it should still work perfectly well as a standalone.

The story is set in the 1890s and is narrated by Doctor Shepherd, who has just arrived at his new job in a women’s mental hospital on an isolated island in New England. Taking a tour of the hospital’s facilities with his new colleague, Doctor Morgan, he is appalled by some of the methods being used to control the patients. When he tells the other doctor of his concerns, Morgan agrees to an experiment: Shepherd can choose one of the women to work with using his own methods in an attempt to prove whether gentle, humane treatment can be as effective as harshness and brutality.

The patient Doctor Shepherd picks for his experiment is a young girl known as Jane Dove – she says she can’t remember her real name, her age or anything about her past. She is also unable to read (and claims that she has never been allowed to learn) and, according to Doctor Morgan, she can’t even use the English language correctly. It seems Shepherd’s task could turn out to be a lot harder than he’d expected! After spending some time with Jane, though, he begins to realise that while the girl’s speech is unconventional, the way she uses nouns and verbs actually makes perfect sense.

She invented new words from old, often by changing the way they were used. She said “we outsided” rather than “we went outside”, or “I downstairsed” in place of “I went downstairs”, both of which I found perfectly clear and actually more economical than the conventional expression.

Jane immediately reminded me of a character from Florence and Giles – another girl who used language in a creative and unusual way. As Doctor Shepherd continues to work with her, encouraging her to search her memory and giving her books to look at, the connection between Jane and that other girl becomes clear. But what about Shepherd himself? It’s obvious from the very first chapter that he is not who he says he is either…and possibly not even a doctor at all!

I love books with unreliable narrators and Doctor Shepherd is a very intriguing one. We know that he is unreliable, we know that he is not being honest with us – but we don’t know why and we don’t know who he really is. The truth about Shepherd isn’t revealed until near the end of the novel, but along the way there are plenty of plot twists and surprises! And to make things even more interesting, Doctor Shepherd and Jane Dove aren’t the only people in the story with secrets to hide; there’s also a third mystery and this one made me think of a classic Victorian novel – an impression that grew stronger as the story progressed.

The Girl Who Couldn’t Read is a great book – it’s maybe not quite as good as Florence and Giles but it comes very close! I did wonder whether the setting might make it too similar to The Asylum by John Harwood, which I read just a few weeks ago, but fortunately they are two very different novels with very different plots and characters. I thoroughly enjoyed them both!