Book Review: The Book of Days by Francesca Kay

The year is 1546 and in an English village a dying man has commissioned the building of a chantry chapel where prayers will be said for his eternal soul. The building of the chapel – and the inevitable disruption to the existing church – dominates the lives of the village and of his household. As does the long period of his dying, leaving his wife – the narrator of this novel – in a type of limbo.

Grieving for the loss of her child, and overshadowed by the spectre of her husband’s first wife, she is forced to ponder what fate will hold for her when she becomes a widow.

All of this takes place at a time when the old certainties are fading. The Reformation is in full force: the old religion has been banned but its rites and rituals have not disappeared. There is a climate of fear but also of change and emboldenment. Will the narrator – symbolically unnamed for much of the novel, and painfully aware of her own lack of agency – finally be able to step out from the shadows?

This is a beautifully written and multi-faceted novel. The structure of the story is built around the traditional book of days, combining the church calendar with a personal journal. But it is also shaped around the physical presence of the church: the building, its symbols, and the graves of generations of people who have been buried there. This is a world in which religion is part of the fabric of everyday life.

Cold, hard stone permeates the story. This is the substance of the church and of the tombs of the dead. It carries traces of the past, with “ghost of an arch and a window blocked up long ago”. But for Simm, the master mason, “stone is a living thing”, to be coaxed into the shapes and forms of nature.

In one sense the people of this world are – like the stone – both living and dead. Life and death are intertwined. The dead continue to affect the living, and the living are invited to anticipate their own deaths, even to the extent of having their likenesses taken for their eventual tombs.

It is left to individuals to find joy in the moment, in the consolations of nature and of everyday life. As the narrator writes her book of days she records the changing of the seasons and the minutiae of the everyday world. Every saint’s day has its rituals, bound up with ancient custom, and she notes that “we must all of us find our truth in plain, familiar things”.

But change is inevitable, the permanence of stone an illusion. Life is a matter of adapting and accepting. As we are told, after an unusually tumultuous episode, “the times are on the march and it behoves us to listen to the drumbeat”. A short but enjoyable and thought-provoking novel.

The Book of Days, Francesca Kay, Swift, February 2024, 9781800753495

Book Review: Run To The Western Shore By Tim Pears

It is the year 72 CE, and Olwen, the headstrong daughter of a local chieftain, has been promised to the Roman governor of Britannia as part of a peace treaty. Together with Quintus, an enslaved Roman, she flees the army camp and sets off towards the coast.

Olwen is fierce and warrior-like, and has a strong affinity with the land and its creatures, while the multilingual Quintus is intelligent but lacks the killer instinct. Despite their differences Olwen and Quintus soon form a strong bond and together they battle the countryside, its hazards, and the pursuing Roman soldiers.

But will their relationship survive, and can Olwen ever return to her people? Or must they aim for the western shore, and hope that they can escape to freedom across the sea?

Tim Pears is known for his lyrical descriptions of the countryside and this is clearly what he does best. In this novel he has lots of rich description of plants, animals and local lore, mostly seen through the eyes of Olwen. He also builds up a picture of early Roman Britain: the scattered settlements, the foraging for whatever food comes to hand, the mistrust of strangers, and the fear engendered by the invaders.

There are also druids, shamans and secret rituals. And Olwen connects with the past through the stories of her ancestors. This is very much a place where the natural and the supernatural are intertwined.

I have to admit that I didn’t always find the main characters or their relationship entirely convincing. It wasn’t clear why Olwen chose Quintus to escape with her, and I felt that they fell in love much too quickly (especially as you get the sense of Olwen leading the way, and of Quintus not having much choice in what happens). I also thought that Quintus could have been developed more fully as a character. Given that he is portrayed as intelligent and thoughtful, I would have liked to have seen him making plans rather than blindly following.

However, anyone who wants to immerse themselves in the atmosphere and countryside of ancient Britain will enjoy this short novel.

Run to the Western Shore, Tim Pears, Swift, 2023, 9781800752979

Book Review: The Ghost Ship By Kate Mosse

17th century Europe wasn’t the best place for an independent, unconventional woman. It was even more problematic if she had a love of the sea, and a burning desire to sail in her own ship. Louise Reydon-Joubert, the central character of The Ghost Ship, faces these problems, and more. She is haunted by her family’s past, and troubled by the issue of how to spend – and defend – a large inheritance. At the same time she is drawn into an illicit love affair…

Set in France, Amsterdam and the Canary Islands, the novel follows the fortunes of Louise and of Gilles Barenton, a young wine merchant. The times are turbulent, and so is Louise’s life, and she soon finds herself at the mercy of forces she cannot control.

The sea is an appropriate metaphor here. Much of the novel takes place on board ship, where murder, storms and pirates mirror Louise’s inner torments. So perhaps it is no surprise that she should hatch an audacious plan to counter the growing slave trade that is enriching ship-owners but terrorising their crews.

The Ghost Ship is the third is a series, but can be read as a standalone story. This was a period of history that I knew little about, but I was drawn in right from the first page. The book is full of lovely rich descriptions, so that it is easy to visualise yourself in 17th century Paris or Amsterdam, or being tossed about on the high seas.

Although it is partly based on stories of two female pirates of the time, the preface acknowledges that the main premise of the novel is unlikely. It certainly seems fanciful but, in the hands of this author, it is skilfully handled. You can find yourself believing that events might have unfolded in just such a way.

This is a book that keeps the reader guessing until the very end. If you enjoy a page-turning adventure full of historical detail you will enjoy The Ghost Ship.

The Ghost Ship, Kate Mosse, Mantle, July 2023, 9781509806911

Book Review: Hester by Laurie Lico Albanese

It is the early 1800s, and Isobel Gamble is travelling with her husband Edward from Scotland to Salem, the New England Town notorious for its 17th century witch trials. Isobel is a talented seamstress who seeks to make a living with her needle once it becomes apparent her husband will not provide for her. She is also presented as the inspiration for the character of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850.

Hester follows the ups and downs of Isobel’s life, her struggle to be accepted in her new home, and her fears that she herself could be regarded as a witch. She experiences synaesthesia – seeing ideas and feelings as vivid colours – and she, along with those she meets and perhaps even the reader, is forced to wonder whether she does in fact have supernatural powers. Her story is interspersed with flashbacks to historic witch hunts, both in Salem and in Scotland.

This is a richly textured work with lots of sumptuous description of fabrics and embroidery. It provides a vivid portrait of Salem and the class and race hierarchies of the early 19th century.

Nathaniel Hawthorne plays a prominent role in the story, and we meet a wide cast of other characters. These include Edward, the feckless husband; the initially suspicious Mercy who eventually becomes a loyal friend; and William Darling, the quietly supportive sea captain.

The novel is ambitious, weaving together many disparate elements. Apart from Hawthorne and his writing, and Isobel’s needlework, we have the condition of synaesthesia, witchcraft trials in Scotland and the New World, and the “underground railroad” that helped escaped slaves to reach freedom.

Unfortunately – to take a metaphor from the story – I felt that the various parts of the design were not sufficiently tightly bound together, and that they did not create a seamless whole. I also wondered whether a reader who was not familiar with The Scarlet Letter would fully appreciate the relevance of Nathaniel Hawthorne to the story. And – perhaps a minor quibble – I was taken aback by one glaring error, when Isobel says “Scots are English” (a phrase that no Scot has ever uttered…)

However, the story carried me along, and I could empathise with Isobel and her friends. A mixed experience, but enjoyable.

Hester, Laurie Lico Albanese, Duckworth, 2022, 9780715654767

Book Review: The Maids Of Biddenden By G D Harper

Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst were conjoined twins living in the Kent village of Biddenden at the beginning of the 12th century. Starting with their removal to a convent to await their (presumed) early death, The Maids of Biddenden follows the ups and downs of their lives, ambitions and struggle for acceptance. We watch Eliza trying to nurture her musical talent and Mary working to heal the sick and to establish her physic garden. All the while they are held back by medieval constraints on gender, the social hierarchy, and their physical dependence upon one another.

Book cover with text "The Maids of Biddenden G D Harper". Cover is brown with images of plants and a lyre

Little is known about the real Eliza and Mary. Even their existence has been disputed, although circumstantial evidence (including a bequest to the village in the 12th century) is persuasive. The author has put flesh on the bones of their legend, presenting us with a picture of two very different but determined and spirited women, and the struggles they would have encountered.

We witness their horror as they grasp the reality of their situation, their wretchedness that nothing can change, and their gradual acceptance of their fate. This journey is mirrored by those around them: to outsiders they eventually become a curiosity rather than a curse.

From a modern perspective the attitudes of some who rejected, mocked, or even sought secretly to dispose of, the twins may seem shocking. However, we have to see the story in the context of the Middle Ages. Life was precarious – even for the wealthy – and any sort of disability was a threat to survival. Furthermore, belief in the devil and his works was real, and  physical differences were to be viewed with suspicion. It is a tribute to human kindness that – for the most part – they were eventually accepted.

I found myself drawn in to Mary and Eliza’s story, and cheering them on as they battled against the odds. It has to be said that, as they would have been genetically identical I wonder whether their abilities and personalities would have been so very different from one another. I also question whether their lives could have been quite as successful as this novel suggests. However, this is fiction, and a certain amount of literary licence is allowable. An enjoyable read.

The Maids of Biddenden, G D Harper, Ginger Cat, 2022, 9780993547874