Sleeper’s Castle by Barbara Erskine

Sleeper's Castle 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.

12 thoughts on “Sleeper’s Castle by Barbara Erskine

  1. jessicabookworm says:

    I can see why that lovely cover would have drawn you back to Erskine’s new novel. I have enjoyed many an old house, beautiful countryside and time-slip take; so this could be a good book for me. Owain Glyndŵr is also a mysterious character from history for me too. All I know about him is what I’ve read in Named of the Dragon by Susanna Kearsley and a history of Henry IV – I would like to read more about him.

    • Helen says:

      I think Named of the Dragon is the only other novel I’ve read which mentioned Owain Glyndŵr. Barbara Erskine’s books are quite similar to Susanna Kearsley’s (though not as good, in my opinion) so I think you might like this one.

  2. Lark says:

    I love that it’s set in Wales. Hay-on-Wye is one of the places I’d most like to go. Even if the book was bad I’d probably want to read it just for that. 🙂

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    I enjoy it so much when one book leads to another. I just read Arcadia by Iain Pears in which he includes time slips, futuristic tech, and a land which grew out of an author’s imagination. Hard to describe but it is centered around Oxford and defies or combines genres. I like that sort of thing. Glad to know you found a book by Eskine you could thoroughly enjoy.

  4. Yvonne says:

    Barbara Erskine is a favourite author of mine, but not all her books are. Child of the Phoenix (13th Century) and The Darkest Hour (World War II) are at the top of my list. I still get excited when I hear she has released a new book. I’m looking forward to reading Sleeper’s Castle. Good on you for giving her another chance.

    • Helen says:

      I wasn’t very impressed by the first two Barbara Erskine novels I read (River of Destiny and Midnight is a Lonely Place) and I had a few problems with Lady of Hay too. Maybe I’ve just been choosing the wrong ones – I’ll look out for the two you mention.

      • flamingo22blog says:

        I read this first of all when I was 18, way back in the early 90s and I loved it. I was, as the strapline at the time advertised it, fascinated, absorbed, and hypnotised. And quite scared too. I remember being petrified when going to the bathroom in the night, in case William was waiting to pounce! And of course I thought it was very romantic and haunting too. I even went to Hay on Wye some years later to visit the places in the story and stayed in a B&B with two fabulous cats. So I was really looking forward to getting into the 25th anniversary edition, complete with short story to bring us up to date – having had it on my shelf for over 4 years – and catching up with the characters in the present day. Naively, I wasn’t aware how much my views on this story, or at least the present day segments, had changed since I was 15 and how much had escaped my notice. The big paradox of this book is that I truly love the story but I dislike the two lead characters immensely.
        Jo is ridiculous. We are told she is a “hard-hitting journalist” but she is as hard-hitting as a marshmallow. She allows herself to be repeatedly bullied, threatened, abused, assaulted and actually raped and actually wants to be in a relationship with her rapist. The police, Jo? Heard of them? There was too much tell, and no show, with Jo. We don’t really know much about her work or why she is supposedly such a good journalist. And I got fed up of being told how beautiful she was, and how every man she met fell in love with her. I couldn’t see that she had any qualities that were in the least attractive, so this backs up my theory that the men were obsessed with her, not that they sincerely loved her.

        Apart from Judy Curzon, nobody seems to do any work. I was amazed they still had jobs, or managed to run households. Actually, they didn’t function at all. It is completely unrealistic to run an advertising agency whilst you are constantly knocking back whisky and chasing around controlling and punching your girlfriend(s). Judy was silly, but having been mucked around by Nick, I had some sympathy with her. Until she decides she wants Nick back, that is, after he has smacked her in the face. To be fair, I am not saying that Barbara Erskine excuses this kind of conduct, more that she intended to show how characteristics of the previous incarnation follow the individual, but I would have preferred it if there was some accountability within the story for these actions.

        In the 2011 update, there is resolution for Matilda and one other character, but Nick is still arrogantly damaging women! He has become involved with and actually married someone when it is clear he doesn’t give a fig and is just feeding his own damaged ego.

        Though I really did love the book, I felt I needed to be more critical in this “incarnation” of reading it.

        • Helen says:

          Thanks for commenting. I completely agree with your thoughts on Lady of Hay…I enjoyed the story, particularly the historical parts, but I found the modern day characters so unlikeable! Jo really frustrated me, as she just seemed to accept all the abuse and violence without trying to stand up for herself. I couldn’t believe she didn’t call the police! I was disappointed with the 2011 short story in the anniversary edition too.

          Have you read Sleeper’s Castle, the book I’ve reviewed in my post above? I had one or two problems with it, but overall I preferred it to Lady of Hay.

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