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.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

In the author’s note that opens The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Sara Collins remembers reading books like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre on the small Caribbean island where she grew up and asking the questions: “Why couldn’t a Jamaican former slave be the star of her own gothic romance? Why couldn’t she be complicated, ambiguous, complex? Why had no one like that ever had a love story like those?’ Frannie Langton is Collins’ attempt to redress the balance and give that Jamaican former slave her very own story in which to star.

The novel opens in 1826 with Frannie – or the ‘Mulatta Murderess’, as she has become known – awaiting trial at London’s Old Bailey for the murders of her employers, George and Marguerite Benham. Frannie, who had been a maid in the Benham household, had been found lying in bed, covered in blood, beside Marguerite’s dead body. She has no idea how she came to be there and is sure she couldn’t possibly have killed her beloved mistress, yet all the evidence suggests that she is guilty. While she waits for her fate to be decided, Frannie looks back on her life and recalls the sequence of events that have led her to this point.

Frannie remembers her childhood, growing up on the Langtons’ sugar plantation in Jamaica (ironically called ‘Paradise’) and describes the circumstances that meant she received an education that would usually be denied to a slave. Later, when Mr Langton returns to England, he takes Frannie with him and she looks forward to new experiences and new opportunities. On their arrival in London, however, she is handed over to the Benhams to become a servant in their home and finds that life is not much better here than it was on the plantation. The one bright spot in her life is her relationship with ‘Madame’ (Mrs Benham), but as we already know from the opening chapter of the book, that relationship will end in tragedy.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is Sara Collins’ first novel and I’m sure it’s going to be a big success for her. It has been given a beautiful front cover, which stands out even amongst the many other beautiful covers that are around at the moment and the book has already been getting lots of very positive reviews since its publication last week. I didn’t love it as much as most other people seem to have done, but that’s probably because it wasn’t really what I’d expected. I thought the crime element would have been a more important part of the story, but the murder and the trial are confined mainly to the final few chapters, and I’m not sure I would agree with the description of the book as a gothic novel either, although I suppose it would depend on what you consider gothic to mean.

I did find Frannie an interesting and engaging heroine with a strong narrative voice and although there were some parts of her story that I felt I’d read many times before (bearing in mind that I do read a lot of historical novels set in the 19th century), Frannie’s background and unusual circumstances mean that we are seeing things from a slightly different angle. Having one white parent and one black, Frannie never really fits in with the other slaves on the plantation – especially when she is given an education and an enviable position as house slave – but she knows she will never be accepted by most white people either. As you can imagine, she experiences a lot of cruelty and prejudice in her life and this is quite a sad story at times – and also quite disturbing, particularly the descriptions of the ‘scientific experiments’ and research carried out by Frannie’s two masters, Langton and Benham.

Sara Collins writes beautifully and I was struck by sentences like “A man writes to separate himself from the common history. A woman writes to try to join it…” and “A good scientist merely searches for the answer to the question posed, but the one whose name history will record reaches for the questions no one has even thought to ask”. And of course, as a fellow book lover, I appreciated Frannie’s love of literature and her determination to read all the books she could get her hands on. But was Frannie really responsible for the deaths of George and Marguerite Benham? You will need to read her confessions to find out…

Thanks to Penguin/Viking Books for providing a review copy of The Confessions of Frannie Langton and for inviting me to take part in their blog tour.

Blood & Sugar by Laura Shepherd-Robinson

This new historical mystery – Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s first novel – deals with one of the darkest subjects in our history. Set in 1781, it follows the investigations of former army officer Captain Harry Corsham into the disappearance of his friend, the lawyer and abolitionist Tad Archer. It seems that Tad had been about to uncover a secret that, once exposed, could damage the reputations of those involved in the British slave trade. Could someone have killed Tad to prevent him from telling what he knows?

Captain Corsham is determined to find out what has happened to his friend, but to do so he will need to continue Tad’s enquiries into a shocking incident which took place onboard a ship carrying slaves across the Atlantic. This brings him into conflict with some very powerful men who could destroy his hopes of a political career. But Harry Corsham is a man with principles and even when he, like Tad before him, begins to receive threatening letters and warnings, he refuses to walk away until he has discovered the truth.

There are many things I liked about Blood & Sugar. The setting and atmosphere are wonderful; with the action taking place partly in London, where Harry Corsham lives with his wife, Caro, and their young son, and partly in the nearby slaving port of Deptford, we see Harry move between both locations in search of answers to his questions. I loved the contrasting descriptions of Deptford, from the elegant homes of the wealthy slave merchants to the notorious dockside alleys with their brothels and opium dens.

We also meet a wide range of characters from very different backgrounds, including magistrates, politicians, mayors and surgeons, prostitutes, innkeepers, sailors and servants. Many of the latter group are black, which is interesting because I think we tend to forget (or are not aware of) how many black people there were living in eighteenth century Britain. It is estimated that there were more than twenty thousand in London alone, yet they rarely appear in fiction set during that period. As for the slavery aspect of the story, there are parts that are not easy to read, as you can probably imagine – particularly when we hear about what happened on the ship, something which is based on a real incident. But unpleasant as it is, we can’t ignore the fact that slavery did happen and I think it’s important that we remember and learn from it.

I was very impressed with this book at the beginning. I liked Laura Shepherd-Robinson’s writing, the mystery seemed intriguing and I was starting to draw comparisons with one of my favourite historical crime authors, Andrew Taylor. However, as the plot continued to develop, I thought it became far too complicated and I struggled to remember who had said what to whom and what the various motives of the characters were. Towards the end, there were so many threads to tie up that everything seemed to take forever to be resolved (and there were one or two revelations which added very little to the overall story and weren’t really necessary, in my opinion). I also felt that as there were so many characters to keep track of, they really needed to be better defined – instead, I thought they were thinly drawn and not very memorable.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would at first, but I still think there were more positives than negatives and as this is the author’s first novel I would be happy to read more.

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

Sugar Money by Jane Harris

When I discovered that there was a new Jane Harris book coming out last year, I couldn’t wait to read it. It had been a long time since the publication of her last one, Gillespie and I, in 2011, but I could still remember how much I loved that book – and her previous one, The Observations, which I read a few months later. I’m not sure why it has taken me until now to get round to picking up Sugar Money, then, but it’s probably just been a combination of too many other books to read (as usual) and a fear that, after anticipating a third Jane Harris book for so long, I might be disappointed by it.

While Gillespie and I and The Observations are both set in 19th century Scotland, Sugar Money takes us to a very different time and place: the Caribbean in the year 1765. Our narrator, teenage Lucien, and his older brother Emile were brought up on the island of Grenada before being taken to nearby French-controlled Martinique as slaves. Their French masters need more workers to labour on the sugar plantations, so the brothers are entrusted with a secret mission: to return to Grenada, once also a French colony but now ruled by the British, and bring a group of forty-two slaves back to Martinique.

Emile and Lucien are the obvious choices to be given this task, with their prior knowledge of Grenada and its people, as well as Lucien’s ability to speak English. It’s not going to be easy, though; there is no guarantee that they will be able to persuade the slaves to join them, when they cannot offer freedom but only the exchange of one master for another – and even if the slaves do agree to come, will they be able to escape from the island without being caught?

Sugar Money, however unlikely it may seem, is based on real historical events which are described in the Afterword at the end of the book. The true story of slaves being involved in the smuggling of other slaves is certainly an interesting idea to base a novel around. Jane Harris grew up in Scotland and she highlights both the Scottish and English involvement in the slave trade, as well as drawing comparisons with slavery in the French colony of Martinique. She doesn’t shy away from describing the brutality of slavery and there are some quite graphic details of the ways in which slaves are treated by their masters and the horrific punishments given to them for the most minor of ‘crimes’, but she writes about all of this in a matter-of-fact sort of way, showing us the evils of slavery without preaching about it, which is something I liked and found quite effective.

I also loved the relationship between Emile and Lucien. Lucien has all the enthusiasm and sense of adventure you would expect in a boy of his age and, of course, it sometimes leads him into danger. Emile, who is much older and wiser, protects him as far as he can, but understandably loses patience at times, while Lucien admires and respects his big brother but doesn’t always understand his actions! I liked them both, but we naturally feel closer to Lucien because he is our narrator. Jane Harris really excels at giving her narrators strong, distinctive voices of their own. To immerse us more fully in the Caribbean of the 18th century, she has Lucien narrate in a sort of Creole mixed with French and English, and an explanation for his unusual speech is given towards the very end of the book. He couldn’t be more different from Bessy Buckley and Harriet Baxter, the narrators of her previous two novels!

I found this a very entertaining read, but it didn’t impress me quite as much as the other two Jane Harris novels. It works well as an adventure novel (Robert Louis Stevenson is mentioned as an inspiration in the acknowledgements), but it lacks all the clever twists and turns that I loved in Gillespie and I. It has impressed the judges of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, though, and has been included on this year’s shortlist. The winner will be announced in June; if Sugar Money wins, I’ll be very happy for Jane Harris, but as I haven’t read the rest of the shortlist yet I don’t know whether there’s another book that is more deserving.

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

When Thomas Kinsman asks his mother, July, to write her memoirs, she agrees on the condition that she is allowed to tell her story the way she wants to tell it:

“Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink. Waxing upon the nature of trees when all know they are green and lush upon this island, or birds which are plainly plentiful and raucous, or taking good words to whine upon the cruelly hot sun, is neither prudent nor my fancy. Let me confess this without delay so you might consider whether my tale is one in which you can find an interest.”

The Long Song The island with the lush green trees, raucous birds and hot sun is Jamaica, where July is born into slavery on the sugar plantation of Amity. As a young girl, July catches the eye of her master’s spoiled and selfish sister, Caroline Mortimer, and becomes her maid and companion. Kept apart from her mother, a field slave, and renamed ‘Marguerite’ because Caroline likes the name, life is not always easy for July but the Christmas Rebellion of 1831 brings hope that slavery in Jamaica will soon come to an end. And with the arrival of a new overseer, Robert Goodwin, life at Amity could be about to change forever…

I have read other books about slavery but never one that focused specifically on slavery in Jamaica, so The Long Song was something new for me. With July moving from the slave quarters to live with her mistress, we see how slavery and its abolition affected not just the slaves themselves but also the British slave owners and overseers. I liked the fact that July’s story does not just finish with the end of slavery in Jamaica but goes on to describe what happened after that. It’s easy to imagine that things improved instantly as soon as slavery was abolished but that was not necessarily true and July does a good job of showing us how she and the other newly emancipated slaves continued to face hardships and obstacles.

As you’ll be able to tell from the excerpt I quoted at the start of this post, July has a very strong and distinctive narrative style, which suits her lively, mischievous personality. She frequently breaks off in the middle of a chapter to argue with her son, Thomas, over what should or should not be included and at other times she addresses the reader directly. Sometimes she gives us one version of events, then admits that she is not being honest and begins again with a more truthful account. Most of her story is told in the third person, as if July was just somebody she had once known and not actually herself – maybe we’re supposed to assume this made it easier for the older July to discuss the painful things that had happened to her? She also adds a lot of humour to her story which makes it feel much lighter and less harrowing than it could have been.

At first I was intrigued by July’s unique narration; it felt different and unusual. After a few chapters, though, the novelty wore off and I started to find it irritating. I wished she would stop interrupting herself and get on with telling the story! I like this sort of writing in Victorian novels but in this case I thought it felt like a gimmick that, for me, just didn’t quite work. I did still enjoy the book but maybe I would have enjoyed it even more if it had been written in a more conventional style. I have a copy of one of Andrea Levy’s other books to read – Small Island, which is being reissued in a new 10th anniversary edition – and I’ve heard it’s very different, so I’m looking forward to reading that one.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred Kindred begins in 1976 with our narrator, Dana, celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her husband, Kevin. Suddenly Dana begins to feel dizzy and disappears from the room, finding herself kneeling by a river watching a young boy drowning in the water. She manages to rescue the boy before the scene in front of her vanishes and she is back in her own home, wet and muddy. After another similar experience, Dana becomes aware that she is somehow being drawn back in time to the early 1800s and that the boy she has saved is Rufus Weylin, one of her own ancestors.

Dana is transported back to the past again and again to find that on each occasion several years have gone by and Rufus is growing from a man to a boy. It seems that the purpose of Dana’s time travel is to rescue Rufus every time he finds himself in danger – but she quickly discovers that as a black woman in Maryland in 1815, her own life could also be at risk. To make things worse, Rufus is white and the son of a slave-owner. She’s not sure whether she can trust him, but she knows that she must continue to protect him if she wants to ensure her own future survival.

This is the first time I’ve read any of Octavia E. Butler’s work, though I’ve heard a lot about her and knowing that she was one of very few black female authors of science fiction made me even more interested in trying her books. I was particularly interested in reading Kindred, as it’s such a well-loved, highly regarded novel, and I’m pleased to have finally had an opportunity to read it because it was excellent.

At first, with her knowledge of the future and the freedom and independence she has there, Dana feels very different from the slaves she meets on the plantation. But the longer she spends in the past, the more she discovers “how easily people could be trained to accept slavery” and is horrified to find herself adapting to her new life and becoming increasingly reluctant to resist, knowing that it’s the only way to avoid punishment. On one of her journeys back in time, her husband, Kevin, is able to accompany her. This adds another angle to the story as Kevin is just as outraged by slavery as Dana is, but being both white and male he finds himself in an entirely different social position.

The relationship between Dana and Rufus is particularly interesting (as Dana herself muses, “slavery fosters strange relationships”). Although both Rufus and his father before him commit some acts of appalling cruelty, they are not portrayed as completely evil people. There are indications, particularly in the younger Rufus, that he has the potential to be a good person but as the years go by he finds it more and more difficult to think and behave any differently than he has been brought up to think and behave. Even the special bond he shares with Dana is strained as he becomes corrupted by the power he has, as a white man, over those he considers inferior.

I don’t know what Butler’s other novels are like, but this one is as much historical fiction as science fiction. We learn very little about the actual technicalities of Dana’s time travel and are never given a scientific explanation as to why it might be happening. The time travel is really just a device to get Dana into the past and explore what it was like to be a slave from the point of view of a modern day black woman. I have read other novels that deal with the subject of slavery but never from this perspective. It was fascinating and really helped me to understand what slavery was like (as far as it’s possible to understand without actually experiencing it yourself). I loved this book!

I received a review copy from Headline via Bookbridgr