Islands of Mercy by Rose Tremain

I’ve found this a difficult book to write about because, although it is undoubtedly very well written and has a lot of the elements I would usually find interesting, for some reason I just didn’t like it very much and have struggled to explain why. It was particularly disappointing as I’ve enjoyed the other Rose Tremain books I’ve read – Restoration, Merivel and The Gustav Sonata – so I had high hopes for this one too.

Anyway, Islands of Mercy begins in 1865 in Bath, ‘a place where very many rich people assembled, to take the waters, or simply to take their leisure’. Jane Adeane is the twenty-four-year-old daughter of a renowned Bath surgeon and works with him as a nurse, gaining a reputation for herself as The Angel of the Baths. She has caught the eye of her father’s fellow doctor and business partner, Dr Valentine Ross, but his attentions are unwelcome to her and she decides to go to London for a while to stay with her Aunt Emmeline, an artist. Here she meets one of Emmeline’s friends, the beautiful Julietta Sims, and feels an instant attraction to her. Soon, Jane finds that she is falling in love with Julietta, and when she returns to Bath she must decide whether she wants the security that marriage to Dr Ross could give her or whether she would prefer to be free to pursue her relationship with Julietta.

Jane’s story alternates with that of Sir Ralph Savage, an eccentric Englishman who lives on the island of Borneo with his servant and lover, Leon, and calls himself ‘the Rajah of the South Sadong Territories’. Leon is an ambitious and resourceful young man who is always coming up with new money-making schemes, but he is also a jealous man and is not at all happy when Edmund Ross, a naturalist who has come to Borneo in search of new species, arrives on Sir Ralph’s estate.

Edmund is the younger brother of Valentine Ross and this provides a link between the two storylines – however, it is a very weak link and for most of the novel they seem like two completely different, unconnected stories. Borneo is certainly a fascinating and unusual setting, but I didn’t have any interest in Sir Ralph and Leon and felt that their chapters could probably have been left out entirely as they added very little to the overall plot of the novel. This made the whole experience of reading this book feel disjointed and every time the narrative switched to Borneo I couldn’t wait for it to return to Bath again.

Although I found Jane’s chapters much more compelling, I was disappointed by the character arc Valentine Ross goes through; I did have some sympathy for him at first after Jane’s initial rejection of him, but he quickly becomes so unpleasant and controlling that he feels like a stereotypical villain rather than a believably flawed character. I didn’t doubt Jane’s love for Julietta, so I don’t really think it was necessary to make Valentine so needlessly cruel and selfish – in fact, I think it would have been more interesting if Jane had faced a choice between the woman she loved and a man whom she at least liked.

There is a third thread to the novel that I haven’t mentioned yet and this follows the story of Clorinda Morrissey, a woman from Dublin who opens a tea shop in Bath, where she gets to know Jane and her father. Clorinda was the one character in the book I really liked and would have been happy to visit for a cup of tea and a cake! I wished we had spent more time with her rather than some of the other less engaging characters.

I will continue to read Rose Tremain’s books as it’s only this one so far that I haven’t enjoyed. Luckily there are plenty of her earlier novels left for me to explore.

Book 2/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

The Land Beyond the Sea by Sharon Penman

The first book I have finished in 2021 is actually one that I started last summer, but as with many of the books I tried to read last year I found that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for anything long and complex. And at almost 700 pages, this novel is certainly long – and with a plot dealing with the history and politics of Outremer, or the Kingdom of Jerusalem, it is certainly complex! As I’m finding it a lot easier to concentrate on reading now, I picked the book up again and have enjoyed immersing myself in it over the last week or two.

Jerusalem was captured by the Crusaders in 1099, at the end of the First Crusade, and the kingdom they established there became known as Outremer or ‘the land beyond the sea’. The Crusaders who stayed in Outremer and made it their home were mainly of French origin and Penman refers to them (and their descendants) as Franks or Poulains. The novel covers the period from 1172 to 1187, a period when the kingdom is becoming divided by disputes over the succession to the throne and when the Muslim Arabs (referred to as Saracens in the book), led by their sultan Saladin, are taking advantage of this to try to reclaim their lands.

With Outremer under threat from Saladin’s armies, strong leadership is more important than ever, but the young king of Jerusalem, Baldwin IV, has been forced to confront an unwelcome truth: he is suffering from leprosy and can expect an early and unpleasant end to his life. As rival Poulain lords begin plotting and scheming to become the influence behind the next king or queen, the Saracens advance further into Outremer, with their eye on Jerusalem itself…

The Land Beyond the Sea is a fascinating novel. I have read a lot about Europe in the medieval period, but not so much about other parts of the world. Apart from Elizabeth Chadwick’s Templar Silks, I can’t really think of anything else I’ve read that focuses entirely on the Holy Land and its people. As my knowledge of the subject was so limited, I didn’t always know how or when a character would die, or who they would marry, or what the outcome of a battle would be, which made a nice change from reading about the Tudors or the Wars of the Roses, where I usually have a good idea of what is going to happen next! It also meant that it wasn’t a particularly easy read; the number of characters introduced in the first half of the book was overwhelming, especially as so many of them were used as viewpoint characters, which made it difficult to really settle into the story. By the middle of the novel, though, I felt that I was getting to know some of them much better and they were starting to feel like real people rather than just names on the page and from this point on I really enjoyed the rest of the book.

Most of the novel is written from the perspective of the Franks, with a focus on three of them in particular: Baldwin, the ‘Leper King’, who is depicted as a courageous and intelligent young man determined to take care of his kingdom until his illness makes it impossible; William, Archbishop of Tyre, tutor to Baldwin, whose chronicle History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea is one of our most important sources of information on the Kingdom of Jerusalem; and Balian d’Ibelin, one of the leading Poulain noblemen who, due to the respect he commands amongst the other lords and his marriage to the king’s stepmother Maria Comnena, often finds himself drawn into the kingdom’s military and political affairs. I’ve noticed that a few other readers have said they found Balian too good to be true, or even anachronistic, but I disagree – there are plenty of other characters in the book who are selfish, weak or untrustworthy, so why shouldn’t there also be one who is decent and honourable? Balian was the only character I fully connected with emotionally; I sympathised with him as he struggled with some very difficult decisions and shared his frustration at the behaviour of some of the other Franks whose inability to put the welfare of the kingdom before their own interests led Jerusalem towards disaster.

We do occasionally see things from the Saracen point of view, particularly when Balian crosses paths with Saladin and his brother al-Adil, and I think Penman does give a balanced portrayal of both sides in the conflict. Although for most of the book the Saracens are the ‘enemy’, whenever the perspective switches to their side we see that Saladin and al-Adil are more admirable than many of the Franks, are prepared to be reasonable in negotiations and to show compassion where necessary. My only complaint is that I would have liked to have spent more time with them instead of just a few pages here and there.

As with Sharon Penman’s other books, this one has clearly been very well researched and her afterword and author’s note are almost as interesting as the story itself. Apart from maybe two or three words and phrases out of a 700 page book, I didn’t have any problems with inappropriately modern language (and I’m usually the first to complain about that sort of thing). However, I didn’t love this one as much as some of her others such as The Sunne in Splendour or Falls the Shadow, which I think is down to finding the writing slightly dry in places and the lack of emotional impact until nearer the end. Still, I really enjoyed The Land Beyond the Sea and am determined to find time soon to read the final book in Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy, The Reckoning, which has been waiting on my shelf for years!

Book 1/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Running Wolf by Helen Steadman

I enjoyed Helen Steadman’s Widdershins, a novel about the Newcastle Witch Trials of 1650, but her new book The Running Wolf sounded even more intriguing as it’s set partly in Shotley Bridge, which is just a few miles away from where I live. The novel begins, however, in Solingen, Germany in 1687, where master swordmaker Hermann Mohll is about to make a life-changing decision. Along with several other Solingen swordmakers, Hermann is planning to leave Germany and settle with his family in the North East of England in search of more work and better opportunities.

Arriving in Shotley Bridge, Hermann is kept busy making swords to sell to the English, while his wife Katrin, daughter Liesl and mother Anna – accompanied by Griselda, the one-eared dog – try to adjust to their new lives. The story of the Mohll family alternates with another storyline, set a few years later in the winter of 1703-4 and narrated by Robert Tipstaff, the unpleasant and corrupt keeper of Morpeth Gaol. December is usually a quiet month for Tipstaff, but this year is different; a German smuggler has been captured and brought to Morpeth, but who is he and why is the powerful Earl of Nottingham taking such an interest in him? Could he be a threat to the reign of Queen Anne?

Although Hermann Mohll and some of the other characters are loosely based on real people and the novel is inspired by real historical events, the story Helen Steadman weaves around Hermann and his family is fictional. The book may be set hundreds of years ago, but with themes including immigration, identity and trade, it all feels very relevant. I enjoyed watching the Mohll family and the rest of the group from Solingen settling into their new home and trying to find the right balance between holding on to their German customs and traditions and adopting the way of life of their new English neighbours. While Liesl is keen to learn to speak English and to make friends with the local children, Katrin finds it much more difficult to adjust, having been forced to leave her own mother behind in Solingen. As for Hermann himself, he has moments of doubt and times when he wonders whether he has made the right decision.

The Morpeth chapters, being set several years later, confused me slightly at first, but I soon started to see how the two threads of the novel were linked, although I was still kept in suspense wondering exactly how they would come together and what had led to the situation Tipstaff was describing. These chapters are shorter than the others and add some variety, not just with the change of narrator but also with the difference in writing style and the use of dialect.

The Running Wolf is a fascinating book. When you read a lot of historical fiction, as I do, it’s always nice to come across a subject you’ve never read about before and to be left feeling that you’ve learned something new. I could tell that Helen Steadman had thoroughly researched the lives of the Shotley Bridge swordmakers and I wasn’t surprised to read in the acknowledgments that she had carried out swordmaking training as part of her research, which explains the detailed and believable descriptions of Hermann’s work. As well as being an entertaining story, this was also an educational one for me!

Thanks to the author and Impress Books for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle

Of the major Renaissance artists, I think Raphael is probably slightly less well known than Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. In Kerry Postle’s novel The Woman in the Painting she explores not only the life and work of the man himself but the story of his mistress and model, Margarita Luti. It is thought that Margarita, known as La Fornarina, may have been the subject of Raphael’s painting of the same name and although we don’t know this for certain, Postle takes this theory as the basis for the novel.

We see the relationship between Raphael and Margarita develop through the eyes of Pietro, a young man who, at the beginning of the novel, has just become an apprentice to the artist Sebastiano Luciani (later known as Sebastiano del Piombo). Although Pietro’s duties are limited to cleaning brushes and grinding pigments, he works hard and learns from his master and the more experienced apprentices, but despite knowing that he has been given a wonderful opportunity, he can’t help feeling that Sebastiano’s paintings lack true greatness. Following an accident in the workshop, Pietro is dismissed from his position and thrown out into the street, where he is rescued by Margarita, one of Sebastiano’s models. It is when Pietro is offered a new apprenticeship with Raphael, who is newly arrived in Rome, that Margarita is introduced to Raphael for the first time.

It’s not long before Margarita is sitting for Raphael’s paintings and beginning to fall in love with the artist, but as a woman from a humble background – she’s the daughter of a baker – she is not seen as a suitable wife for Raphael. Meanwhile Pietro is also finding himself attracted to Raphael and the affection he had first felt for Margarita soon turns to jealousy.

I enjoyed The Woman in the Painting, although I think I might have preferred it to have been narrated by Margarita. I felt that the choice of Pietro as narrator held me at a distance from Raphael and Margarita and stopped me from fully understanding their relationship and the emotions involved. The focus instead was more on Pietro’s feelings of envy and resentment and the ways in which he acted on these feelings to try to cause trouble for Margarita and get closer to Raphael himself. Still, Pietro was a complex and very human character and although I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for him, I couldn’t actually dislike him either.

I didn’t really know a lot about Raphael before I started to read this book, so I found that I was learning a lot from it. The descriptions of the day to day work of the artist and his apprentices in the studio particularly interested me. As recently as 2001, X-ray analysis showed that the woman depicted in La Fornarina had originally worn a ruby ring on her finger which was painted over at some point. There is no historical proof for the explanation Postle gives for this in the novel, but it works in the context of the story. We also see, from Pietro’s perspective, the political situation in Rome at that time and get to know some of the historical figures of the period, including not only Raphael, Michelangelo and Sebastiano, but also Agostino Chigi, Raphael’s patron, and Cardinal Bibbiena, to whose niece Raphael was engaged.

This is the first Kerry Postle novel I’ve read, but I see she has written a few others including The Artist’s Muse, about Gustav Klimt and his model Wally Neuzil. Has anyone read that one and what did you think?

Thanks to HQ Digital for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies

This is the first of Dinah Jefferies’ novels not to be set in Asia. After being whisked off by her previous six books to Sri Lanka, Myanmar, French Indochina and other fascinating settings, it was a surprise to find that her latest one takes place in Italy. I do love reading about Italy, though, and this setting – Rome and Tuscany during World War II – was just as interesting as the others.

The Contessa of the title is Sofia de’ Corsi, who lives with her husband Lorenzo in their Tuscan villa in the Val d’Orcia. Lorenzo works for the Ministry of Agriculture but Sofia knows very little about what his work actually involves, other than that it takes him away from home for long periods of time. The war is in its final years – the story begins in November 1943 – yet life in Italy is becoming more dangerous and more complicated than ever. Much of the country is still under German martial law and although the Allies are advancing and driving the German army back, their progress is very slow. Not only do Italians have the Nazis to worry about, however, but they are also fighting each other, with anti-Fascist partisans locked in civil war with supporters of Mussolini and his Fascist forces.

When James, a British radio engineer, is found wounded near Sofia’s home she offers to give him shelter, but knowing that Lorenzo would be worried for her safety, she decides to keep his presence a secret from her husband. Meanwhile, Maxine, an Italian-American spy, has arrived from Rome to stay with Sofia, having been given the job of gathering information about the Germans to pass on to the resistance and the Allies. But with the Nazi officers stationed in the village beginning to grow suspicious about Sofia’s household, the two women and their loved ones could be in danger.

I have to confess that before I read The Tuscan Contessa I knew very little about Italy during the war, so I was pleased to find that a timeline is included at the front of the book, outlining the key events from the Italian perspective. This helped me to understand what had been happening in the months prior to the beginning of the novel and how there were so many different groups all working with or against each other: the German occupiers, Mussolini’s Blackshirts, the Partisans and communists, Allied soldiers and SOE spies. It’s not surprising that Sofia and her friends are never quite sure who can and cannot be trusted and who might be about to betray them. One thing I really liked about the novel is the way Jefferies shows that there are good and bad people on all sides of any conflict and that both friends and enemies can be found where they are least expected.

Although there are plenty of male characters, all with significant roles to play in the novel, the focus is mainly on the women and the decisions they have to make to keep themselves and their families safe. I liked Sofia but the other characters felt less well drawn and I even found myself confusing some of them with each other. I didn’t feel that I ever truly got to know and understand Maxine, which was a shame because her storyline should have been the most exciting and compelling, as her work took her into some very dangerous situations. It seemed that the characters sometimes took second place to the history unfolding around them, which made the story less emotionally gripping than it could have been.

This is not one of my favourite Dinah Jefferies novels, but I’m still glad I read it even if just for the knowledge I’ve gained of 1940s Italy!

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting

This beautifully written novel, translated from the original Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, is the first in a planned trilogy based around the legend of the Sister Bells. The bells commemorate conjoined twin sisters Gunhild and Halfrid Hekne, who lived in the remote village of Butangen and died within hours of each other. Their family donated the bells to the local church in memory of the twins and they are still hanging there, in the bell tower, in 1880 when the novel begins…

As the rest of the world heads towards the twentieth century, Butangen appears to be frozen in time, a place where life is still ruled by superstition and folklore, where people still believe in evil spirits and ill omens. When Kai Schweigaard, an ambitious young pastor, arrives in the village he despairs of ever bringing change to a population so resistant to progress and modern ways of thinking.

If only people had light, he thought. If there was a strong lamp in every home, which could illuminate faces and edifying books, I could banish these mad notions in a few years. But at sunset the village grew dark, and with it folk’s minds, and these unknown powers ruled until sunrise.

One of the ways in which Kai hopes to improve life in the village is by replacing the ancient 12th century stave church where a parishioner actually froze to death during Mass with a larger, warmer, more comfortable building. The old church, complete with its pagan carvings and twin bells, is to be dismantled and reconstructed in Dresden, and a young German architect – Gerhard Schönauer – has arrived to make drawings of the church before it is taken down. However, Kai and Gerhard face opposition not only from the people of Butangen, who are suspicious and resentful of anything new, but also from the Sister Bells themselves. The bells are said to have supernatural powers and to ring on their own when danger is approaching – and it seems that the bells don’t want to be removed.

As well as the two men, a large part of the story is also written from the perspective of twenty-year-old Astrid Hekne, who works as a maid in Kai Schweigaard’s household at the parsonage. Despite the differences in their social standing, Kai is considering making Astrid his wife, but complications arise when Astrid finds herself drawn to Gerhard Schönauer. Meanwhile, as a descendant of the twins Halfrid and Gunhild, Astrid feels a responsibility for the bells and decides she must do whatever it takes to prevent Gerhard from transporting them to Dresden with the rest of the church.

The Bell in the Lake is a wonderfully atmospheric novel thanks to Lars Mytting’s beautiful descriptions of the landscape around Butangen, particularly in winter with its frozen lakes and snow-covered hills and valleys, while the supernatural elements and the role of the Sister Bells legend give the story an eerie and mysterious feel. The sense of time is as strong as the sense of place and the characters feel like real 19th century people, rather than modern day people dropped into a random historical setting. However, I think the decision to have Astrid and the other villagers speak in a dialect which seems to be mainly Scottish is a bit strange. I suppose the translator had to find a way to differentiate between the speech of the local people and the outsiders (who speak in standard English), and using Scottish words makes sense because of the close ties with Norway, but I found it slightly distracting and kept forgetting that Astrid was actually Norwegian!

One of my favourite themes in fiction is the conflict between old ways of life and new, and in this novel we see how the inhabitants of Butangen are reluctant to move away from the traditions they have always followed and try to resist any kind of social, scientific or religious progress. Although Astrid has been brought up with the same beliefs, she has a more adventurous spirit than most of her neighbours and longs to see more of the world, which is what draws her to Gerhard. The demolition of the old church, which Gerhard has come to oversee, and the building of the new one is symbolic of all of this. If you’ve never seen a Norwegian stave church, by the way, I recommend googling them – they look amazing and it’s sad to think that there are so few of them left.

Having enjoyed The Bell in the Lake so much, I am looking forward to the other two books in the trilogy and hope we won’t have to wait too long for the next one!

Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor

Having enjoyed one of Joseph O’Connor’s earlier novels, Ghost Light, about the relationship between the playwright John Millington Synge and the actress Molly Allgood, I was looking forward to reading his newest book, Shadowplay, which was shortlisted for this year’s Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Like Ghost Light, this book explores the lives of several real historical figures from the literary and theatrical worlds – in this case, the Irish author Bram Stoker and the English stage actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

Bram Stoker, of course, is best known for his 1897 novel Dracula, which is written in an epistolary style and O’Connor uses a similar format in Shadowplay, telling the story through a series of imagined diary entries, letters and transcripts of recordings. Beginning with his life in Dublin and marriage to Florence Balcombe, the novel takes us through Stoker’s meeting with the great Shakespearean actor Sir Henry Irving and his move to London to become the manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre. Stoker’s involvement with Irving and the Lyceum leads to a friendship with Ellen Terry, the leading actress of her time, and the relationship between these three characters forms the heart of the novel.

While much of Stoker’s time is taken up with managing the theatre and trying to deal with Irving’s eccentricities, sudden rages and heavy drinking, he also continues to work on his own career as an author. Sadly he won’t achieve the fame he deserves until after his death, but in Shadowplay we see him drawing on his experiences and the people and places around him to put together the various parts of the novel that will become Dracula. I should point out, though, that this book is a work of fiction and Joseph O’Connor finds some very creative ways to weave Dracula allusions into the plot. They are not necessarily things that influenced the real Stoker, but I thought it was fascinating and cleverly done. Jonathan Harker appears, and Mina, although not quite in the way you might expect, a visit to an asylum inspires the creation of the insect-eating Renfield, and with Jack the Ripper haunting the streets of London at that time, it’s easy to see why themes of death and darkness wouldn’t be far from an aspiring author’s mind.

Despite all the interesting ideas explored in this novel, I can’t really say that I loved it. I thought the format and structure of the book made it feel slightly disjointed; a more conventional narrative would have worked better for me and would have made it easier for me to connect with the characters and become more fully asbsorbed in their stories. Still, this is an entertaining and very imaginative novel and I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to learn a little bit more about Bram Stoker, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry!