The White Hare by Jane Johnson

‘Once you’ve lived in this valley, you’ll never be free of it. Its uncanny beauty gets inside you, right into the marrow. It has its own climate, its own peculiar character. In the same way as people can draw you in and repel you at the same time; both beguile and frighten you.’

I love Jane Johnson’s books; they always have such fascinating settings – 17th century Morocco in The Sultan’s Wife, 15th century Spain in The Court of Lions, and the author’s native Cornwall in The Tenth Gift. She returns to Cornwall again for her new novel, The White Hare, a book steeped in the myths and legends of that region of England.

The novel begins in 1954, with Mila Prusik, her mother Magda and five-year-old daughter Janey arriving at White Cove near Eglosberyan on the Cornish coast. Having left Poland for England during World War II, the family had been settled in London until a disastrous relationship with a married man left Mila desperate to make a fresh start. She and Magda have bought a neglected old house in the Cornish countryside and are planning to restore it to its former glory and turn it into a guest house. However, not everyone is happy to see the house under new ownership and the Prusiks receive a hostile welcome.

As Mila and her mother begin their restoration work, they hear hints from their neighbours that the house has a sinister past and should be left alone. The two women think this is nonsense and continue with their plans, but Mila becomes increasingly concerned about the changes in Janey’s behaviour – particularly her obsession with Rabbit, a stuffed toy that seems to have a mind of its own. How is all of this related to sightings of the legendary White Hare and to the strange symbols and carvings Mila finds all over the house and its grounds?

The White Hare is one of the most atmospheric books I’ve read for a while, not just because of the supernatural aspects – which are subtle, ambiguous and unsettling – but also because of the way the setting is so beautifully described. As Jane Johnson explains in her author’s note, the town of Eglosberyan and its valley are not real but are inspired by several real places. I could picture the white house surrounded by dark woodland, the stream tumbling between mossy rocks, the lonely beach framed by granite cliffs – they are all brought so vividly to life.

I also found it interesting to follow the relationship between Mila and Magda. When they first arrive in Cornwall, Mila is timid and submissive, allowing herself and Janey to be bullied by the hard and domineering Magda, but both characters do grow and change throughout the novel as the valley works its magic on them. There’s also a love interest for Mila, but although I did like him I felt that this part of the story took too much of a dramatic turn towards the end. Still, this is a very enjoyable novel and, while it’s quite different from the other Jane Johnson books I’ve read, being set entirely in one period and not as far into the past, I liked it just as much.

I still have three novels by Jane Johnson left to read: The Sea Gate, The Salt Road and Pillars of Light. If you’ve read any of them, please help me decide which I should read next!

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

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.

Court of Lions by Jane Johnson

The Court of the Lions is part of the Alhambra, the magnificent palace and fortress in the Spanish city of Granada which forms the setting for Jane Johnson’s latest novel. Having read and enjoyed one of her previous books (The Sultan’s Wife, set in 17th century Morocco), I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to read Court of Lions as part of a blog tour organised by publisher Head of Zeus. You can see the schedule for the other stops on the tour at the end of this post.

Court of Lions is a novel set in two different time periods. First, in the present day, we meet Kate Fordham, who has fled from a troubled marriage in England and is working in a bar in Granada, hoping she has done enough to prevent her husband from finding her. One day, exploring the gardens of the Alhambra, she discovers a scrap of paper pushed into a crack in a wall. Written on it is a message in an unfamiliar language and although Kate is unable to translate it, she senses that it could be important. And she is right, because her discovery leads her to form new relationships and to find the strength she needs to move on.

Alternating with Kate’s story is another story, set in the late 15th century and introducing us to Abu Abdullah Mohammed, the last Sultan of the Emirate of Granada, given the name Boabdil by the Spanish, but referred to in the novel as Momo. We get to know Momo from the point of view of a fictional character, Blessings, a slave child brought from Morocco to be his companion. Growing up together at the Alhambra, Momo and Blessings become close friends – and a loyal friend is what Momo desperately needs as he prepares to face the challenges which await him: a struggle for the throne against his own father and uncle, and war with Catholic Spain, led by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

I found the 15th century storyline completely fascinating and compelling. I have read a little bit about the fall of Granada before, but not from this perspective, so most of it was new to me. The sequence of events leading up to the surrender of the city is described in just the right amount of detail and left me wanting to explore the period further, which is something all good historical fiction should do. Momo’s personal life, his marriage and the fates of his children are also given some attention, all seen through the eyes of Blessings – who is not exactly an unbiased observer as it quickly becomes clear that what he feels for the young Sultan is more than just friendship. Blessings himself is also an interesting character and although I don’t want to say too much here, there are revelations later in the book which answered some of the questions I had about him.

The modern day sections of the novel were slightly less successful. I did like Kate and enjoyed watching as she made new friends in Granada and learned about their culture and lifestyle, but I found the storyline involving her disastrous marriage very melodramatic (again I don’t want to give too much away). Although some of the threads linking the two time periods together are a bit too coincidental to be convincing, I liked the fact that the two share common themes such as religious conflict, prejudice and tolerance – things which were relevant in Momo’s day and are still just as relevant in ours.

The descriptions of Spain and the Alhambra itself are beautifully written. One of my aims for 2018 is to read more fiction set in countries other than my own so I have taken a step towards achieving that aim by reading Court of Lions. Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy for review.

The Sultan’s Wife by Jane Johnson

The Sultan’s Wife is set in Morocco in the year 1677 and is narrated by two different characters. The first is Nus-Nus, a eunuch slave in the palace of the Sultan Moulay Ismail and the second is Alys Swann, an Englishwoman who has been captured at sea by corsairs and given to the Sultan as a gift. Amidst the dangers and conspiracies of Ismail’s court, Nus-Nus and Alys form a friendship and try to help each other survive.

I haven’t read any of Jane Johnson’s previous novels and chose to read this one purely because the setting sounded so interesting. I’ve never read a novel set in 17th century Morocco and I fell in love with the setting from the very first chapter. Everything was described so vividly, I wasn’t surprised to find that the author lives in Morocco herself and has already written two other books set in the same country. I learned so many fascinating little facts about Moroccan history and culture and about the building of the historic city of Meknes (which was intended to rival Versailles). There are also a few chapters where the action moves to England and the court of Charles II in Restoration-period London. It was interesting to be shown the English court through the eyes of Nus-Nus and to see the ways in which it was both different and similar to the Moroccan court. But although there are lots of descriptions of food, clothing, furnishings etc, the pace of the story never slows down and there’s always something happening.

Nus-Nus and Alys are fictional characters but Moulay Ismail, the Sultan, was a real person and is considered to be one of the cruelest rulers in history (one of his nicknames is ‘the bloodthirsty’). This is something that Jane Johnson portrays very convincingly – based on some of the things he does in this novel, living in his household must have been a terrifying experience! Nus-Nus and the other slaves and courtiers are constantly in fear of their lives, knowing that they are at the mercy of his whim, and they have learned to be extra careful when they see him dressed in yellow as this indicates he’s in a particularly murderous mood. Ismail’s wife, Zidana, is also portrayed as a villain; a jealous, scheming person who uses poisons and witchcraft to attack her enemies.

Of the two narrators, I didn’t find Alys Swann a very memorable character but I did really like Nus-Nus. In fact, he was the main reason why I enjoyed this book as much as I did. Nus-Nus was captured from his Senufo tribe as a young man and before coming to the Sultan’s palace had spent some time assisting a British doctor who taught him to read and write and to speak English. These skills make him invaluable to both Ismail and Zidana and are the reason why he’s in a position where he’s able to befriend and help Alys. As a black slave and a eunuch, Nus-Nus is often treated unkindly by other members of the court, but still has a lot of dignity and courage. I thought he was a wonderful character.

The story does touch on some controversial subjects including slavery, racism and prejudice, torture and cruelty (some of the things described in the novel are very brutal and characters lose their lives in some gruesome ways) but I thought everything was handled sensitively. The only criticism I really have is that Alys didn’t have a very distinctive voice; sometimes she didn’t sound any different from Nus-Nus and I didn’t immediately realise the narrator had changed. Apart from that, The Sultan’s Wife was exciting, informative and swept me away to another time and place, which is what I’m always looking for in historical fiction. I loved it!