The Giant, O’Brien by Hilary Mantel

Having finished Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy last year, I knew I wanted to read more of her books. A Place of Greater Safety, her novel about the French Revolution, has always sounded appealing to me but the length is off-putting, so I decided to try a shorter one first.

The Giant, O’Brien, published in 1998, is based on the true story of the 18th century Irish giant, Charles Byrne. Also known as Charles O’Brien and claiming descent from the High Kings, but usually referred to by Mantel as simply ‘the Giant’, Byrne and his friends leave Ireland in 1782, fleeing ‘cyclical deprivation, linguistic oppression and cultural decline.’ The Giant has previously been able to make a living by entertaining his neighbours with stories and songs but, sensing that things are changing, he knows he needs to find a new way to earn money. The solution seems obvious, so after arriving in London with his entourage, the Giant appoints the unscrupulous Joe Vance as his agent and agrees to exhibit himself as a freak, to be stared at, pointed at, poked and prodded, in return for money.

The story of another man unfolds in parallel with the Giant’s. His name is John Hunter, a Scottish surgeon and anatomist – like Charles Byrne, a real historical figure. Mantel describes Hunter’s early years in Long Calderwood and how he came to be in London, first as an assistant to his brother William, another famous anatomist, and then on his own, conducting autopsies in the name of scientific research. Before the Anatomy Act of 1832, it was very difficult to obtain bodies for medical study in the UK, a problem which led to body snatching and the illegal digging up of graves. In one fascinating, if slightly gruesome scene, Hunter lectures a group of newly recruited body snatchers on the best ways to get hold of fresh corpses without being detected. Naturally, the bodies of most interest to Hunter are those that are unusual in some way – so when he hears news of the Giant currently being exhibited in London, he decides to make him an offer, despite the fact that the Giant is not yet dead.

Mantel portrays the Giant as a gentle, intelligent man with a natural gift for telling stories and a seemingly endless knowledge of myth, folklore and fairy tales. This, as much as his height, makes him stand out from his friends. While the others succumb to London’s temptations – alcohol, women and gambling – the Giant saves his money in the hope of one day rebuilding Mulroney’s tavern, now a ruin but once the place where ‘Courts of Poetry’ were held and he was taught the art of storytelling. John Hunter, in contrast, is much less likeable; if the Giant represents tradition and a way of life that is about to be lost forever, Hunter represents progress and advancement and is portrayed as clever, ambitious and lacking in empathy.

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Mantel explains which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional. There’s more factual information available on John Hunter than there is on the life of Charles Byrne, but what we do know about Byrne is that he suffered from gigantism caused by pituitary tumours, his height was 7ft 7 (2.31m) and his skeleton has been on display in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons for over two centuries, despite his own wishes to be buried at sea. The museum has been closed since 2017 for renovations and the future of Charles Byrne’s remains is the subject of an ethical debate.

I found both the Giant and John Hunter interesting to read about, particularly as I previously knew nothing at all about either of them, but I thought the book seemed slightly disjointed because of the way it kept switching between the two narratives. Until they began to converge very near the end, the two storylines felt completely separate and unconnected; I suppose Mantel’s aim was to show the contrast between the main characters and the different paths they followed through life, but I felt it didn’t flow very well as a novel. I also didn’t find the eighteenth century London setting as immersive as the Tudor world she creates in the Wolf Hall books. Still, there are some fascinating ideas in this novel and the Giant O’Brien himself is a character I won’t forget in a hurry!

This is book 1/50 read for the 2023 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Blue Water by Leonora Nattrass

This is the sequel to Black Drop, Leonora Nattrass’ 2021 debut novel which introduced us to the character of Laurence Jago. Blue Water works well as a standalone historical mystery, but I would recommend reading both books in order if you can.

It’s December 1794 and former government clerk Laurence Jago has just left Britain aboard the packet ship Tankerville. The ship’s destination is Philadelphia, where one of Jago’s fellow passengers, Theodore Jay, will deliver a treaty to President Washington. The Jay Treaty, negotiated by Theodore’s father, the American envoy John Jay, is designed to promote peace between the two nations and prevent America from joining forces with France against Britain. War Office official Mr Jenkinson, also on board the Tankerville, has offered to hide the Treaty in a safe place, but when he is found dead and the papers disappear Jago realises it’s up to him to find them and prevent them from falling into French hands.

Well, I enjoyed Black Drop but this second book is even better! With almost the entire story taking place at sea and therefore with a limited number of characters, the mystery has a ‘locked room’ feel and kept me guessing until the end. Leonora Nattrass very skilfully casts suspicion on first one character then another and it soon appears that almost everyone on the ship has a secret to hide. Although I correctly predicted a few of the plot twists (and was impatiently waiting for Jago to discover them too) the eventual revelation of the fate of the Treaty came as a complete surprise to me. I was also surprised when I read the author’s note at the end and saw that some parts of the plot were based on historical fact, although the details have been added to and embellished using the author’s imagination.

Laurence Jago continues to be an engaging narrator, though not always the most reliable one due to his occasional poor judgement, the secret sympathies we learned about in the previous book and his tendency to succumb to the temptations of ‘black drop’ laudanum. I was pleased to see the return of some other characters from the first book including the journalist William Philpott (whose attempts to compile a dictionary of seafaring superstitions add some humour to the book) and Theodore Jay’s slave and companion Peter Williams, always a calm and wise presence amid the onboard chaos. And of course, there are plenty of colourful new characters amongst the passengers, including two French aristocrats, an American plantation owner and an Irish actress with a dancing bear!

Choosing to set this novel at sea gives it a very different feel from Black Drop. Apart from a few glimpses of Madeira and then Praia, capital of Cape Verde, the whole story unfolds aboard the Tankerville and we are given lots of insights into life during a long sea voyage. The use of nautical terminology never becomes too overwhelming but it all feels authentic and due to the setting, time period, elegant prose and frequent encounters with French warships, I was strongly reminded of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series. I was quite sure Leonora Nattrass must have read O’Brian and when I reached the acknowledgements at the end of the book I found that I was right!

If it’s not already clear, I loved this book and hope there’s going to be a third in the series.

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

Book #5 read for R.I.P. XVII

Book #56 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Bookseller of Inverness by S G MacLean

The Scottish author SG MacLean is best known for her Seeker series and before that, the Alexander Seaton series originally published under the name Shona MacLean. I haven’t read any of those books (although I do own The Redemption of Alexander Seaton), but when I saw that her new novel, The Bookseller of Inverness, was a standalone, it seemed like a good place to start.

Set in Scotland in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, the ‘bookseller’ of the title is Iain MacGillivray, a survivor of the Battle of Culloden. Six years have now passed since he was wounded on the battlefield and although he escaped with his life, his face has been left badly scarred. Still traumatised by the death of his cousin Lachlan, Iain has been living quietly since the failed rising, selling books and running a small public library in Inverness. One day, Iain notices a stranger searching through the shelves, opening and closing books; he won’t tell Iain what he is looking for and only leaves when the shop is shut for the night.

The next morning, Iain opens up the shop again to find the stranger dead on the floor, his throat cut and beside him a sword with a white cockade on the hilt – the symbol of the Jacobites. The murder coincides with the reappearance of Iain’s father Hector, a prominent Jacobite who fled Scotland years earlier but still hasn’t given up hope of seeing a Stuart king on the throne once more. When more murders follow, Iain and Hector begin to search for a missing book containing the names of traitors to the Jacobite cause – a book they believe could hold the key to finding the killer.

Although the search for the book and the murderer drives the plot forward, I didn’t think the mystery was a particularly strong one. I was more interested in the historical detail, the descriptions of everyday life in 18th century Inverness and the insights into the mood, politics and changing loyalties in the years following Culloden. I’ve read about the Jacobites many times before and would prefer authors to explore other periods of Scottish history, but MacLean’s enthusiasm for this subject and setting shine through and her very detailed author’s note shows that a huge amount of research went into the writing of this novel. I’m glad I already had some knowledge of this period, though, as I think I might have found the twists and turns of the story a bit difficult to follow otherwise. MacLean also incorporates some subplots that touch on wider topics such as the slave trade and indentured servitude.

Most of the characters in the book are fictional, although many of them, as I discovered from the author’s note, are based on the lives and experiences of real people. One historical figure who plays an important part in the story without actually appearing in it is Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat – known as the ‘Old Fox’ – who readers of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series will remember as Jamie Fraser’s grandfather. Iain MacGillivray himself is an engaging character with an interesting past; I enjoyed getting to know him and reading about the work he and his assistants put into collecting, restoring and selling – or lending – books to the people of Inverness.

I’m pleased to have finally read something by MacLean. The Redemption of Alexander Seaton will be next!

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

This is book 50/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

That Bonesetter Woman by Frances Quinn

I loved this! I’ll admit that when I first saw that this was a novel about a female bonesetter in the 18th century, I had my doubts. Was this really something a woman would be able to do at that time or was this going to be another book, like one or two others I’ve read recently, based around a completely anachronistic idea that could never have happened in reality? Then I discovered that there really was a female bonesetter working in London in the 1700s: her name was Sally Mapp and her story has provided Frances Quinn with the inspiration for her latest novel.

That Bonesetter Woman begins with Endurance Proudfoot – known as Durie – arriving in London in 1757 with her sister, Lucinda. The unmarried Lucinda has found herself pregnant and, with Durie accompanying her, has been hastily packed off to stay with an aunt so that she can give birth away from prying eyes at home. Durie is not at all happy to be sent away; she had been on the verge of persuading her father, a bonesetter, to allow her to work with him as his assistant. Now it looks as though the position will go to her younger brother instead. This is devastating for Durie – with her large hands and feet, social awkwardness and tendency to always say and do the wrong thing, bonesetting is the one thing she’s discovered she’s good at.

Watching with a mixture of admiration and resentment as Lucinda overcomes her own personal crisis and launches a new career for herself on the London stage, Durie decides it’s time to take matters into her own hands. She’s determined to find a way to do the work she loves and nothing is going to stop her.

This is a fascinating novel, particularly as it’s loosely based on the lives of real people (like Durie, Sally Mapp was believed to have a sister, Lavinia Fenton, who became a famous London actress). I enjoyed reading about Durie’s work as a bonesetter – similar to a modern-day chiropractor or osteopath, I think – but what particularly interested me was seeing the obstacles she had to overcome to be allowed to carry out her work at all, the mistrust from patients on discovering that they were going to be treated by a woman, and the hostility she faces from the existing, exclusively male, medical community. Poor Durie experiences one setback after another, but her passion for bonesetting and helping those in pain really shines through.

Although Durie is not considered a great beauty like her sister, she does have love interests throughout the novel but her lack of self-confidence leads to her making mistakes and poor decisions. Nothing ever seems to go her way, but while things often look bleak for Durie I never stopped hoping that she would find happiness and success in the end.

As I come to the end of this review I realise there are a lot of things I haven’t mentioned – the vivid portrayal of 18th century London, the menagerie in the Tower of London, the subplot involving the Foundling Hospital – but there’s so much going on in this novel, I can’t include all of it! It’s a great book and I will have to find time to read Frances Quinn’s previous novel, The Smallest Man.

Thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 36/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Privilege by Guinevere Glasfurd

I enjoyed both of Guinevere Glasfurd’s previous novels, The Words in My Hand and The Year Without Summer, so I hoped for good things from her latest novel which sounded just as intriguing as the other two. The title Privilege could refer to all sorts of things, but in this case it’s a reference to the system in pre-Revolutionary France where publishers had to obtain a ‘royal privilege’ before a book could be published.

The novel begins in Rouen in 1749, where Delphine Vimond is being raised by her father, having lost her mother at an early age. Delphine’s father runs a pottery, but he is also a collector of books and Delphine inherits from him a love of literature and a desire for learning. Finding the key to his library, she discovers a whole new world of adventure and knowledge in the pages of his books. However, when a volume by Milton on the killing of kings is found in his possession, Delphine understands for the first time that not all books are seen as appropriate and that some are even forbidden.

Meanwhile, in London, we meet Chancery Smith, an apprentice printer. A box of papers from Paris signed only with the letter ‘D’ has been received at the print shop and Chancery is given the job of visiting France to try to identify this mysterious author. It’s not going to be an easy task – as the papers contain potentially dangerous writings, Chancery must avoid letting them fall into the hands of the censors who would see the papers destroyed and the courier punished. On arriving in Paris, his path crosses with Delphine Vimond’s and together they set off in search of ‘D’, while trying to stay one step ahead of the royal censor, Henri Gilbert, and his spies.

Privilege is a thought-provoking read, exploring issues such as censorship, the power of the monarch, and the freedom – or lack of it – to write and think about topics that matter to us. Before reading this novel I didn’t really know how the ‘royal privilege’ system worked and how it lead to books written in France having to be published in other countries and smuggled back in, so I found that aspect of the story fascinating. I also picked up lots of other snippets of information on the early publishing industry along the way – I had never heard of France’s ‘blue library’, for example.

I found the mystery/thriller aspect of the novel slightly less successful, maybe because the identity of the unknown author seemed too obvious. Still, with two engaging protagonists in Delphine and Chancery, as well as a strong cast of secondary characters, and with such an interesting subject at the heart of the story, it’s a book that I enjoyed reading.

Thanks to John Murray Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 29/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by Sean Lusk

I was drawn to The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley by the setting – 18th century Constantinople – but I wasn’t sure that it would really be my sort of book. From the blurb, I was expecting a strong magical realism element, something I don’t always get on with. However, I was pleased to find that this aspect of the novel was actually much more subtle than I’d expected.

The story begins in London in 1754 with the birth of Zachary Cloudesley. Sadly, his mother dies giving birth to him, leaving little Zachary to be raised by his father Abel, a clockmaker and inventor of automata. Fortunately, Abel doesn’t have to do this alone – help soon arrives in the form of wet nurse Mrs Morley and the eccentric Aunt Frances, two very different women who go on to play important roles in Zachary’s life.

From an early age, it becomes apparent that Zachary possesses the gift of ‘second sight’ which allows him to see into the future and this gift only becomes stronger following a serious accident for which Abel blames himself. In order to keep his son safe, Abel is persuaded to accept a commission which takes him far away from his London workshop, to Constantinople (Istanbul). But when Abel fails to return from his journey, Zachary is determined to follow him and do whatever it takes to rescue his missing father.

The first half of this novel has a very Dickensian feel. I was particularly reminded of Dombey and Son, which also begins with a baby being born, the death of the mother in childbirth and the arrival of a wet nurse. I enjoyed getting to know the characters who make up the Cloudesley household: the forthright, opinionated but warm-hearted Grace Morley and her little daughter Leonora; the larger-than-life Aunt Frances who takes her crow and two parrots everywhere she goes; and Abel’s apprentice Tom, an intelligent, talented young man with a not-so-well hidden secret. All of these people have interesting histories of their own, which are revealed during the early stages of the novel.

When the action moves away from London, to the heart of the Ottoman Empire, we are treated to some colourful descriptions of Constantinople, the sultan’s palace, and the seraglio, presided over by the kizlar agha (the head of the eunuchs). However, this is where I felt the story lost its way a little bit and for a while I struggled to stay interested. I think this could have been partly due to the focus switching to Zachary who, despite being the title character, was not as engaging as Frances or Mrs Morley. I’m also not quite sure what the point was in the ‘second sight’ aspect of the book as it didn’t really seem essential to the plot. Still, this was an entertaining debut novel by Sean Lusk – if you read and enjoy it, I can recommend Cynthia Jefferies’ The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan for another adventure in Constantinople or The Clockwork Girl by Anna Mazzola if you’re interested in the world of 18th century automata.

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

This is book 27/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Winchelsea by Alex Preston

John Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet is a book I’ve been intending to read for a few years now – it’s on my Classics Club list – and I should probably have done so before picking up Winchelsea, a novel described by its author as “Moonfleet for grown-ups”. I often seem to do these things the wrong way round!

The novel takes its title from the seaside town of Winchelsea in East Sussex where the story is set. Our heroine, Goody Brown, rescued from drowning as a baby, is the adopted daughter of the physician Ezekiel Brown and his French wife, Alma. Goody has had a happy childhood and has grown to love her adoptive parents and her brother Francis, another adopted child, but in 1742, when she is sixteen years old, her life changes forever. Ezekiel, as well as being the town’s doctor, serves as ‘cellarman’ to a gang of smugglers, helping them to store their goods out of sight in the tunnels below the cliffs. When things go wrong and Ezekiel is murdered in the night by the gang, Goody and Francis begin to plot their revenge.

On the one hand, Winchelsea is a good old-fashioned adventure story, featuring not just smugglers but also pirates, espionage, political intrigue – yes, it’s the 1740s so the Jacobites and Bonnie Prince Charlie make an appearance – and all sorts of other swashbuckling escapades. On the other, it explores issues that the older novels it imitates would have swept over or not tackled at all, such as race (Goody’s adoptive brother escaped from a slave ship and is the only person in Winchelsea with dark skin) and gender (a cross-dressing storyline with a character who feels most comfortable ‘neither as woman nor man’). This mix of 18th century history and characters with 21st century sensibilities didn’t quite convince me, but other readers might enjoy seeing a modern take on an old story. The language was generally appropriate for the 1740s setting, anyway!

Goody’s name puzzled me slightly because it was historically a shortened form of Goodwife used to address older married women; it seemed a strange name to give a child. I suppose there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used as a first name as well. Most of the novel is written in the first person from Goody’s perspective and she’s a very engaging narrator. Later, two other characters take their turn to tell part of the story and although I found the change in narrators jarring at first, I soon settled into reading from a different point of view and I think the structure of the book was quite effective.

The best thing about Winchelsea, in my opinion, was the depiction of Winchelsea itself – the coastal landscape, the houses with large cellars, the underground network of tunnels known as the ‘Under-Reach’ – and nearby Rye and Romney Marsh. I haven’t read Russell Thorndike’s classic adventure novel Dr Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh, but I suspect that was another of Alex Preston’s influences.

Although this book wasn’t a complete success with me, it did keep me entertained for a while and I will try to read Moonfleet sooner rather than later!

This is book 25/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.