The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson

When we think about slavery it’s not usually the capture and sale of white Europeans that comes to mind, but that is the topic at the heart of Jane Johnson’s The Tenth Gift. In August 1625, a church in Mount’s Bay, Cornwall was raided by Barbary pirates who took sixty men, women and children into captivity to be sold at the slave markets of Morocco. In The Tenth Gift, Johnson imagines the story of one of these captives – a young woman called Catherine Anne Tregenna.

When we first meet Catherine, or Cat as she is known, she is working as a lady’s maid at a large manor house in Cornwall. A marriage has been arranged for her with her cousin, Robert Bolitho, but Cat wants more out of life. Her skills with a needle have won her a commission from the Countess of Salisbury and she dreams of joining a guild and becoming a master embroiderer, even if she has to leave Cornwall to do it. However, she is soon to travel further from Cornwall than she could ever have imagined. Abducted from church by Barbary corsairs along with her friends, family and neighbours, Cat finds herself on a ship heading towards North Africa, her fate to be decided by the corsair captain.

But Cat’s is not the only story to be told in this novel. In the present day, we meet Julia Lovat, a woman who has been having an affair with Michael, her best friend’s husband, a seven-year relationship which has just come to an end. As a parting gift, Michael gives her an old book of embroidery patterns, but when Julia opens the book she is confronted by something unusual – a series of diary entries written in the margins by someone called Cat who lived in the seventeenth century. Julia is soon engrossed in reading about Cat’s ordeal, but it is only when she visits Morocco herself that she is able to put together all the pieces of Cat’s story.

I found a lot to enjoy in The Tenth Gift, which isn’t surprising as I’ve previously enjoyed two of Jane Johnson’s other Moroccan novels, The Sultan’s Wife and Court of Lions. She writes so vividly about Morocco, describing all of the sounds, sights and smells with a vibrancy that really brings the setting to life. Her depiction of seventeenth century Cornwall is equally well done and it’s obvious that she knows both places very well. The two storylines – past and present – fit together perfectly and the links between them don’t feel too contrived, although there are some supernatural undertones, particularly towards the end, that I thought seemed unnecessary.

I liked Cat and found her story fascinating but, as happens so often with these dual timeframe novels, I thought the present day one was much weaker. I never really managed to warm to Julia and didn’t have much sympathy for her relationship problems; I did become more invested in her story once she arrived in Morocco, but I think the book would have worked better as a straight historical novel without the modern day sections. Cat’s adventures are so interesting and I appreciated the way Jane Johnson tries to give an explanation for why the corsairs behaved the way they did and explores both the similarities and differences between Christian and Islamic cultures.

If you do read this book and enjoy it, you might also enjoy The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson, which deals with a different pirate raid, this time on Iceland’s Westman Islands in 1627, or The Sea-Hawk by Rafael Sabatini, a wonderfully entertaining novel which also takes us from Cornwall to the Barbary Coast.

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

Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

Greenwitch is the third novel in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence. I loved the first two books, so I was pleased to find that I enjoyed this one just as much. It brings together characters from both the first book and the second, so I would recommend reading both of those before starting this one, if possible.

The novel opens with the Drew children – Simon, Jane and Barney – whom we met in Over Sea, Under Stone, returning to Trewissick in Cornwall with their Great Uncle Merriman. The Grail, which played such a big part in Over Sea, has been stolen from the British Museum and the children know who is responsible: the forces of the Dark. However, the inscription on the Grail can be of no use to the Dark without the manuscript that will help to decipher it – and the manuscript is lost at the bottom of the sea.

To help the Drews in their quest to recover the Grail and locate the missing manuscript, Merriman has brought along Will Stanton, the boy we first met in The Dark is Rising. But Will doesn’t reveal to the others that he, like Merriman, is one of the Old Ones and working for the forces of Light, so they are left feeling uneasy and resentful about his presence and his relationship with their Great Uncle.

Like the previous books in the series, this is an atmospheric and eerie story, steeped in magic and ancient folklore. The ‘Greenwitch’ of the title is a giant effigy in the form of a woman made of sticks, constructed by the women of Trewissick and sacrificed to the sea in a yearly ritual – not just an inanimate object, but a living being, with a mind of her own. This is referred to as a type of ‘Wild Magic’, or the magic of nature, another element in the ongoing battle between Light and Dark. The Greenwitch holds the key to understanding the Grail, but the children will have to persuade her to give up her secrets before the agents of the Dark get there first.

I found this book as compelling as the first two and read most of it in one day; as a book aimed at younger readers, it’s quite short and the plot moves along at a fast pace, but as an adult there’s still enough depth and complexity to the story and characters to hold my attention. It was good to see the three Drew children again, after they were absent from the last book, and this time I particularly liked the large and important part Jane played in trying to befriend the Greenwitch and defeat the Dark. At first I was disappointed by the children’s hostility towards Will and the way he seemed to have a much quieter, more passive role in this novel after being the central protagonist of the last one, but later I decided that the decision to tell most of the story from the Drews’ perspective was actually quite effective. It made Will appear aloof and otherworldly, in keeping with his position as one of the Old Ones working on behalf of the Light. Still, I found the reluctance of Will and Merriman to confide in the other children quite frustrating, as it would have made things so much easier for them.

There are some wonderful moments and set pieces in this book: the ritual sacrifice of the Greenwitch; the evil that emanates from the paintings produced by the artist of the Dark; Jane watching from her window as magic and madness take hold of the village of Trewissick. Although this is the middle book in the series and so there are still things that haven’t been resolved and things that I don’t quite understand yet, I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to continuing with The Grey King.

This is book 13/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list. Obviously I am not going to complete the list this summer, but I’ve enjoyed most of the books I’ve read, which is the most important thing!

Castle Dor by Daphne du Maurier

My choice for this year’s Daphne du Maurier Reading Week (hosted by Ali of Heavenali) is one of du Maurier’s more obscure novels; in fact, it’s debatable whether it should really be considered one of her novels at all, as it was begun by another author, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, also known as Q. At the time of his death, Quiller-Couch had left the novel unfinished and du Maurier completed it at the request of his daughter. I have seen some very mixed reviews of this book so wasn’t expecting too much from it; however, I have now read all of her other books – apart from some of her non-fiction – so I wanted to read this one as well for completion.

Published in 1961, Castle Dor is set in 19th century Cornwall and is based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult. The novel opens with a chance encounter between Linnet Lewarne, a young woman married to a much older man, and Amyot Trestane, a Breton onion seller, who fall in love and embark on a romance which will closely follow the events of the legend. Linnet and Amyot themselves are unaware of the parallels with that much older love story, although they know that something unusual is happening to them – that they have knowledge they really shouldn’t possess, are using words that should be unknown to them, and are behaving in ways they cannot control.

Local doctor and scholar Dr Carfax has a particular interest in Cornish legends and as he observes Linnet and Amyot together, he grows more and more concerned about the relationship between them and how it is mirroring the tale of Tristan and Iseult – and he begins to wonder whether he himself is playing a role in the retelling of the story.

If you’re not familiar with Tristan and Iseult, I won’t tell you what happens, but like most legendary love stories, it’s dramatic and tragic. Something in the way the novel is written, though, makes it feel less dramatic and tragic than I had expected, which was disappointing; the characters feel strangely flat and never really come to life and I struggled to believe in the romance between Linnet and Amyot. I expect that is at least partly due to the change in authors in the middle of the book; we will never know how Q had planned to develop the characters or how du Maurier would have depicted them if she had written the book from the start.

The exact point where du Maurier takes over from Q is not known and the transition is smooth and seamless so it’s not easy to detect the change, but I definitely noticed a difference in the writing style in the later parts of the book. The earlier chapters, which we know were definitely written by Q, are more heavily laden with historical and geographical detail as Carfax and his friends discuss various sources of the Tristan and Iseult story and try to locate some of the landmarks associated with the legend. I found this interesting, but not particularly compelling; the second half of the book was faster paced and more engaging as du Maurier brought the story towards its conclusion.

Although there are some similarities with du Maurier’s later time travel novel, The House on the Strand, this book is not really representative of her work (I think it’s unfair that Quiller-Couch is not credited on the cover). Unless you’re particularly interested in Tristan and Iseult, I think it’s one you should come to after reading some of her other novels first; it definitely wouldn’t give you the best impression of the qualities I love in her work. Still, Castle Dor was an interesting read and I have now reached my goal of reading all of Daphne du Maurier’s novels!

This is also book 16/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

Bone China by Laura Purcell

Hester Why, the narrator of Laura Purcell’s latest gothic novel Bone China, is a woman with secrets. We know that Hester Why is not her real name, but what is the reason for her new identity? Why is she fleeing to Cornwall from London, who is she hiding from and how did she come to be addicted to gin and laudanum? These are questions we ask ourselves in the very first chapter and they are answered eventually, but first we must follow Hester to Morvoren House, perched high on the Cornish cliffs, where she is taking up a new position as nurse to Miss Louise Pinecroft.

Hester quickly discovers that her job is not going to be easy and soon she is asking questions of her own. What is wrong with Miss Pinecroft, who barely moves, never speaks and spends her days sitting in a cold room surrounded by china cups and plates? Who is Rosewyn, the strange, child-like young woman described as Miss Pinecroft’s ward? Is there any truth behind the claims of the superstitious servant Creeda that Rosewyn needs to be protected from fairies who are trying to steal her away and replace her with a changeling?

Bone China moves between three different timelines; as well as following Hester at Morvoren House, we also go back to an earlier time in her life, when she was known as Esther Stevens, and learn what went wrong in her previous employment, leading to her decision to run away and start again. Finally, in a third narrative we meet Louise Pinecroft as she was forty years earlier, when she and her father first arrived at Morvoren House after losing the rest of their family to consumption.

Laura Purcell has become known for writing dark, creepy Victorian novels and Bone China does have a lot of classic Gothic elements, including a gloomy, imposing clifftop house, family secrets and hints of madness. Despite this, I didn’t think this was a particularly scary or chilling story and although the exploration of Cornish folklore added atmosphere, I never doubted that the fairies and changelings existed only in legends and in Creeda’s stories. How much more spine-tingling it would have been if I had found myself feeling convinced that they could be real after all!

What I did find very disturbing and unsettling was the storyline set in Louise Pinecroft’s younger days, describing the work of her father, a doctor, who is looking for a cure for consumption (tuberculosis), the disease which took the lives of his wife and his other children. With Louise’s help, Dr Pinecroft carries out a revolutionary experiment, taking a group of prisoners who are suffering from the illness and lodging them in a cave beneath the cliffs where he claims the salty sea air will be good for their health. This part of the book was based on historical fact – cave air really was suggested as a possible cure for consumption at one time – and it was horrifying to read about the barbaric treatment of sick people due not to cruelty but to ignorance of modern medical procedures and a lack of understanding.

There are lots of interesting ideas incorporated into Bone China, then, but in the end I felt that the three threads of the story didn’t come together as neatly as they should have done. I also found the pacing uneven; in the second half of the book, the sense of mystery and carefully building tension of the earlier chapters was replaced by a sudden race to reach the conclusion. I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped to, but I’m planning to read Laura Purcell’s first novel, The Silent Companions, soon and will see if I get on better with that one.

Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

This week Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings are hosting another of their club events, where bloggers read and write about books published in a chosen year. This time the year is 1965 and as usual I found a wide variety of books to choose from, as well as a few that I’d already read. Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence was published in 1965 and as I’ve wanted to read that series for a long time this seemed the perfect opportunity to begin.

I did wonder whether I might have read this book when I was younger and forgotten about it, but as soon as I started to read I knew I couldn’t have done as it didn’t seem familiar at all. The story begins with three children – Simon, Jane and Barney – arriving in Trewissick, a small fishing village in Cornwall where they will be spending the summer holidays with their parents and Great Uncle Merry. The children have fun exploring the large house the family are renting, particularly when they move some furniture and discover a secret door leading into a dusty hidden room.

Up to this point, I thought the book had a feeling of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe about it, but the plot soon goes in a very different direction when the children find an ancient manuscript inside the hidden room. The manuscript includes a drawing of what appears to be the Trewissick coastline and some text which they are unable to translate, apart from a possible reference to King Arthur and his knights. Could it be a treasure map – and if so, what sort of treasure is it leading them to?

On sharing their news with Great Uncle Merry, the children learn the true significance of the map they have found and set off to follow the clues it contains. But it seems that other people have also been looking for the map and will stop at nothing to get hold of it and discover its secrets for themselves.

Over Sea, Under Stone is described as a children’s novel, but I think it is one of those books that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. It did often remind me of the Enid Blyton adventure stories I loved as a child, but this book feels darker than anything Blyton wrote. The villains are quite sinister and there were several points in the novel when I was genuinely worried about the children! It doesn’t help that our young heroes and heroine make some stupid decisions and choose the wrong people to trust – but they are children, after all! I liked the way Susan Cooper gives each of them his or her own strengths and weaknesses and their own chance to shine and play a part in solving the mystery.

The Cornish coastline is beautifully described and although the village of Trewissick is fictional, it felt very real to me and I wasn’t surprised to learn later that Susan Cooper based it on Mevagissey, a real fishing port in Cornwall. The coast, with its rocks and caves, beaches, cliffs and bays, is an integral part of the story and not just a pretty setting!

This is a great book and I do regret not reading it as a child, as I’m sure I would have loved it then. I will definitely be continuing with the rest of the series, although I’m aware that the other books are a bit different and have a stronger fantasy element.

~

I will have another 1965 read to tell you about later in the week, but for now here are some other 1965 books I have previously reviewed on my blog:

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart

Stoner by John Williams

The Flight of the Falcon by Daphne du Maurier

Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore

One of the reading challenges I have been participating in during 2018 is the What’s in a Name? challenge which involves reading books with certain words in the title. Having reached November with only four of the six required books completed, it was looking unlikely that I would be able to finish the challenge, but I’m pleased to say that I have managed to squeeze the final two books into my December reading – starting with this one, Zennor in Darkness (a book with a title that begins with Z).

Published in 1993, Zennor in Darkness was Helen Dunmore’s first novel. I had high hopes for it, as I’ve enjoyed some of her others, particularly Exposure and Birdcage Walk. Unfortunately, although there were things that I liked about this one, I was slightly disappointed with it, even more so because most people who have read it seem to have loved it and I’m sorry that I couldn’t love it too.

The novel is set in 1917 in Zennor, a village on the coast of Cornwall where the author DH Lawrence lives for a while during the First World War. Hoping to find some peace and quiet away from the controversy caused by the recent publication of his novel, The Rainbow, Lawrence and his wife Frieda have decided to rent a cottage in Zennor where they can wait for the war to end and for a time when he may be able to resume his writing career. But even as Lawrence gets to know the local farming families and discovers the charms of rural life, he finds himself the centre of controversy yet again – this time because of Frieda, who happens to be German. The villagers view Frieda with suspicion, disapproving of her red stockings and her German songs, and convinced that she and Lawrence are sending signals to the U-boats lurking off the Cornish coast:

‘All the same though, there are things not right up there. They say they’ve put different coloured curtains up. In the same window.’
‘Why, whatever would they want to do that for?’
‘In the window looking over the sea.’
‘You mean -‘

One person who doesn’t care about the gossip and who is happy to befriend the Lawrences anyway is Clare Coyne, a young woman who lives with her widowed father. Clare is a talented artist and is helping to illustrate a new book her father is writing on botany; she is also in love with her cousin, John William Treveal, who is home on leave from the trenches before starting his training as an officer. The rest of the family are unaware of Clare’s feelings for John William, so she keeps her fears and worries for him to herself, hoping that as he has survived this long, he will continue to survive and will come back to her when the war is over.

The novel is partly about Clare’s relationship with DH Lawrence and partly about her love for John William, but I felt that the two elements of the story didn’t work together very well and could have formed the basis of two separate books. I found the central love story by far the most engaging and interesting aspect of the novel, while the inclusion of Lawrence added very little for me. I couldn’t help making comparisons with Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud, a very similar story about the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, where I thought the blending of real historical characters and fictional ones was more successful.

I did love the portrayal of life in a small village during the war, touching on topics such as shell shock, desertion and the effects of war not only on those who are fighting in it but on the loved ones they leave behind. The writing is certainly beautiful – both poetic and insightful, with some lovely descriptions – but books written in third person present tense are often a problem for me and that was the case here as I found it distracting and emotionally distancing. I think the writing style is what prevented me from enjoying this book as much as I’d hoped to. Not a favourite by Helen Dunmore, then, but I will continue to read her books and will hope for better luck next time.

~

I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back soon with my books of the year, my December Commonplace Book and maybe another review or two before New Year.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

It would have been Margaret Kennedy’s birthday today and she is the next author to be featured in Jane’s Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors. Having only read three Margaret Kennedy novels – The Constant Nymph, Lucy Carmichael and Troy Chimneys – I still have a lot of her books to choose from, but I decided on The Feast for this year’s Margaret Kennedy Day as I’ve seen several people name it as a favourite. Now that I’ve read it myself I can understand why!

The Feast was published in 1950 and is set three years earlier, in the summer of 1947. The novel follows a week in the lives of a group of guests who are staying at Pendizack Hotel on the coast of Cornwall. The week will end in tragedy when part of the cliff collapses on the hotel, killing everyone inside. This is not a spoiler because the book opens with a prologue in which we see the Reverend Bott attempting to write a sermon in memory of the dead. We also know that there will be some survivors – but the identities of those who will live and those who will die won’t be revealed until the end of the book.

The hotel is owned by the Siddals, although it’s Mrs Siddal who does all the work while her lazy husband does nothing at all and their three sons, now adults, make their own plans for the future. The housekeeper, Mrs Ellis, is a bitter, resentful woman who spends most of her time gossiping about other people, so the Siddals are relying more and more on the maid, Nancibel, a friendly, kind-hearted local girl.

The guests are a varied and not particularly pleasant group of people. They include Sir Henry Gifford, his selfish wife and their four children (three of whom are adopted); Mrs Cove, a cold and heartless woman who has very little affection for her three neglected daughters; the Paleys, a couple whose marriage has been strained since the loss of their child several years earlier; bad-tempered, overbearing Canon Wraxton and his long-suffering daughter Evangeline; Anna Lechene, an unscrupulous, irresponsible writer who is working on a new book about the Brontës, and her chauffeur, a handsome young man called Bruce who tells lies to make himself sound more interesting.

I was aware before I started the book that Margaret Kennedy had based the personalities of some of her characters on the Seven Deadly Sins and this added an extra layer of interest as I matched up different characters with different sins as I read. There are some obvious villains in the novel – Mrs Cove, Lady Gifford and Canon Wraxton are particularly nasty – but others have a mixture of good and bad qualities. I knew which characters I wanted to survive and which I didn’t, but life is not always fair and people don’t always get what they deserve, so there was still an element of suspense as the story moved towards its tragic conclusion.

I loved following the lives of the Siddals, their guests and their servants. Bearing in mind that the whole story takes place over the course of just seven days, there’s an impressive amount of character development with people making life-changing decisions, searching for happiness and taking control of their own futures. With over twenty characters all playing important roles in the novel, some authors would have struggled to make each man, woman and child different and memorable, but Margaret Kennedy succeeds and the result is a really enjoyable and absorbing read. It’s probably my favourite of her books so far – although I did love Troy Chimneys as well!