I can’t believe it’s been nearly eight years since I read The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley. Having enjoyed that one, I had fully intended to explore her other books but never did; of course, it didn’t help that most of them seemed to be out of print at the time. Thanks to Canelo, all three books in her Margaret of Ashbury trilogy are now available, of which A Vision of Light (originally published in 1988) is the first.
The novel opens in the year 1355 with our heroine, Margaret, hearing the voice of God telling her that she must write a book:
“I am only a woman,” I said to the voice in my mind. “I have no letters, and do not know Latin. How shall I write a book, and what shall I put in it, as I have never done any great deeds?”
The Voice answered:
“Put in it what you have seen. There is nothing wrong with being a woman, and doing ordinary things. Sometimes small deeds can show big ideas. As for writing, do as others do: get someone to write it for you.”
The person she gets to write it for her is Brother Gregory, a young friar who is trying to make a living as a scribe writing letters for London’s largely illiterate population. Brother Gregory has a low opinion of women but he needs the money so he accepts the commission and reluctantly begins the task of chronicling Margaret’s life. He is sure a woman can’t possibly have a story worth telling, but once he begins to meet Margaret and listens to what she has to say he becomes drawn into her tale despite himself.
I won’t go into too much detail regarding Margaret’s story. There’s not really a central plot that I can describe; beginning with her early life in the little English village of Ashbury, it takes the form of a picaresque novel as she moves from place to place, having a series of adventures along the way. There are outbreaks of plague and accusations of witchcraft. There are encounters with humble peasants, wicked noblemen, travelling entertainers and mysterious alchemists. And then there is the Vision of Light which Margaret receives one day, leaving her blessed – or cursed – with the miraculous powers of healing.
I found A Vision of Light great fun to read, even though, like The Oracle Glass, it contains a few of the things that often irritate me in historical fiction: the occasional use of anachronistic language, for example, and a heroine whose views are sometimes more appropriate to the century in which the book was written rather than the one in which it is set. The writing is imbued with so much humour, life and energy that those things didn’t bother me the way they usually would; it’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, while at the same time touching on some serious – and sometimes dark – topics, and getting the balance just about right.
Although the tale Margaret relates is the most compelling part of the novel, the framing narrative is also interesting, mainly for the interactions between Margaret and Gregory and the way their relationship develops as they spend more time together. Gregory is an intriguing character in his own right and although his attitude towards Margaret makes him difficult to like at first, I thought he did improve as the book went on! I’m sure I will read the second novel, In Pursuit of the Green Lion, at some point so I can find out how the story continues.