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.
23 thoughts on “Fair Helen by Andrew Greig”
An interesting project and at least you know you will be getting quality novels.
Thanks for bringing this one to my attention – I see it’s on the library shelf so have added it to my list. Not an author I’ve read before but he also has some other titles there none of which appear to be historical novels.
His other books all sound quite different from this one, don’t they? I would like to try another one, though, as his writing is so beautiful.
I thought I’d read Andrew Greig, but as none of the titles of his books are famiar I must be confusing him with someone with a similar name. I have this one, so it’s lovely to know you were so taken with it.
He’s a completely new author for me; I had never come across his books until I read about this one. I’m looking forward to reading more.
I haven’t read that one but I recently enjoyed his book That Summer, set in 1940 and I’ll definitely be reading more by Greig.
Thanks – I’ll look out for That Summer. 🙂
Sounds like a very fascinating setting and great writing is always a bonus!
It’s a great setting and one that I wish more authors would use!
I’ve heard of the Walter Scott prize, but I hadn’t remembered it is for historical fiction. Your project sounds like a very interesting one, and as Cat says above, one that will bring you some good books. I was of course thinking of Dorothy Dunnett as I was reading. I will look for this one, when the TBR Dare is over – and I’ll also be looking for your other project reviews.
It was difficult not to think of Dunnett as one of the main characters was Walter Scott of Buccleuch – the grandson of Lymond’s Buccleuch, I think.
This looks so good! I’ve added it to my wishlist.
The Border Reivers are fascinating but trying to work out their history is not easy. Last year I read The Steel Bonnets by George MacDonald Fraser. It’s a detailed account of the Border between England and Scotland up to the accession of James VI’s succession to the English throne in 1603, which is a mine of information, but I didn’t find it easy to read.
You might be interested in Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea (I haven’t read it yet – I bought it last summer). It’s historical fiction set in Ayrshire between 1586 and 1591 based on the Cunninghame/Montgomerie feud
I haven’t heard of Turn of the Tide, but it does sound interesting. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve been thinking about reading The Steel Bonnets for a while, but it doesn’t look an easy read so I’ve been saving it until I’m in the right mood!
I’m a sucker for historical fiction set in Scotland and your reference to Dunnett sold me on this one! It’s a great project!
It seems that once you’ve read Dunnett you find yourself discovering references and connections in every other book you pick up!
This sounds like a lovely read and an interesting period in history. I’m glad you enjoyed this and look forward to seeing what you read next by this author and this time period.
It is a really interesting period and one I would like to read more about.
Probably the book closest to this that he’s written is ‘When They Lay Bare’ – another beautifully written border ballad novel.
Thanks, Suz. I’d love to read another book based on the border ballads so I’ll look out for When They Lay Bare.
Dorothy Dunnett is / was one of the great influences in my writing life, though of course I don’t come close to her breadth and scope – I love the Lymond novels and enjoyed Fair Helen also – I was rooting for her re the Walter Scott – read Andrew Grieg first / met him when he was the lead judge in a short story competition I was fortunate enough to win – and he’s a lovely person, but his other books (so far) are not historicals and quite different in tone. Thank you for mentioning me Margaret@Bookplease – that was a lovely surprise when i set a google alert today!!
Thanks for commenting, Margaret. It’s always good to hear from other Dunnett readers! I’m pleased you enjoyed Fair Helen too. I really liked Andrew Greig’s writing, but I do prefer historical novels so I’m not sure how I would feel about his other books if they’re so different from this one.
I love the Lymond Crawfold books. You might also like George Fraser MacDonald’s The Candlemass Road, which is about this area and time.