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Robert Merle – The Brethren

Book Cover

All for one and one for… sort of.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 402
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27123-9
First Published: 1977
Date Reviewed: 21st September 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Original language: French
Original title: Fortune de France (Fortune Of France)
Translated by: T Jefferson Kline

Pierre was born in a time of war. Some time before his birth, his father, Jean de Siorac, made a pact with Jean de Sauveterre; whilst the Siorac family grew in number, de Sauveterre stayed with them, sharing leadership duties. The war is as much about land and rulings as it is about religion: as Calvin states his ideas reform begins to sweep across France and the people of Mespech begin to join them.

The Brethren is historical fiction, the start of a series that suggests the rest will be epic. A fairly long story, it focuses on Pierre’s childhood and the background of the family. Heralded a modern Dumas, though not quite the same, Merle looks at those who were both at odds with and in favour of the crown.

This book requires a fair amount of attention, composed as it is of battles both factual and not so, other pieces of information, and a number of characters. You’re forgiven for confusing people on occasion – Merle tends to include descriptions with his references and dialogues (for example Colondre’s lack of speech, Coligny’s battle experience). Though technically repetitive it never seems so as it’s helpful. The story is very well set in its era with the benefits of hindsight the author can include. The women are occasionally allowed to be involved in battle (to an extent) and Jean de Siorac’s understanding of health and hygiene is ahead of its time. (As far as the latter is concerned, it’s interesting to note the way what we would now consider common sense is discussed as an unhealthy obsession. Needless to say, however, the good hygiene pays off!)

This book sports action but it’s mostly related third-hand as I’ll be discussing shortly. The story therefore deals more with the domestic side of the sixteenth century – Pierre’s upbringing, the effect of reform on a divided household, childbirth and wet-nursing, and relations between masters and their servants. The family at Mespech have a good relationship with their tenants – they don’t offer in the way of money but there is a relative equality and no one goes hungry. This element, the relationship between the well-off and not so, is perhaps the strongest element of the book.

And there is humour. Some of it must be seen in its historical context to work, for example the woman who always talks of being ‘forced’ into having intercourse, who is always the brunt of laughter because everyone knows she went willingly, enjoyed herself over the course of fifteen times, and uses the notion of being forced to mitigate the problems that would accompany infidelity. Such comedy wouldn’t work nowadays, would be awful. Whether or not Merle’s humour here is comfortable enough for the reader is something else, of course.

The characters are okay – the men developed, a pun that’s intended because the women, as much as they can talk and banter with the men and as much as they don’t have to stay in the kitchen, are somewhat reduced to body parts – again, explained in a moment. Due to the way the story is narrated by a child rather than any of the adults there is not quite enough development for you to feel particularly strongly but then this is the start of a series.

Amongst all the goodness, then, are a fair few problems. The first is the way so much of the book is non-fictional. Historical fiction often deals with fact but Merle has included information as though he were writing a text book, whole swaths of historical information which is often background context rather than anything that affects the characters directly. This means the book is semi-non-fictional and begs the question of how smaller the page count could have been without it.

Merle is absolutely obsessed with breasts. Almost every time a woman is mentioned, so too are her breasts as well as, often, her size. (Most older women are very large, most young very thin.) The female characters are mostly servants of the household but one would not be remiss in believing they’re also there to serve lusts. There are two scenes wherein all heads turn, all gazes fix, upon the firm buxom wet-nurse who takes out her beautiful white breasts during dinner to suckle the lucky little babe the men wish they could replace. Talk of heads enveloped by chests almost forms a theme. Doubtless the male characters would not gawk so much if Merle wasn’t forcing them to do so.

There’s distance between narrator and reader. Where Pierre narrates what happens to his father, third-hand, there is distance and the story is perhaps not as interesting as it could’ve been if, say, these adventures had happened to Pierre himself. This looks set to change in book two, but for this, book one, it’s very much the case.

Finally, exclusive to the English translation, is the language. Merle wrote his story in a sort of sixteenth century French which may sound hard going and potentially off-putting but that’s the way it is. The translator has written the English version in modern English, a little on the Victorian side; what you’re getting is one person’s interpretation more so than you would usually. The lack of comparable sixteenth century English may entice some readers but those wanting to read Merle may find the English drier and less thrilling than the French.

The Brethren has a lot going for it but also a fair amount that’s not in its favour. It is quite fascinating, the modernity of the characters is capable of winning you over, and most importantly it will make you want to continue to book two; but it is best noted that it’s far from flawless and has the ability to disappoint in places.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Mary Mayfield

September 23, 2015, 1:21 pm

I tried to read this a while back – maybe late last year/early this – but couldn’t get past the first 50 pages or so. I just wasn’t interested enough to carry on reading.


September 23, 2015, 6:43 pm

As you know I won one your giveaway copies of this! I’m sorry to hear this didn’t work for you on all levels, but you mentioned enough positives for me to still be looking forward to trying this.

April Munday

September 23, 2015, 6:49 pm

There are lots of good reviews for the original on Translations don’t always work out very well. It must have gone down well in the original, as there are 13 volumes.

Apparently I can buy it from in German, but not in French. Mein Gott!


September 23, 2015, 9:59 pm

I read this last year and my thoughts on it were very similar to yours, especially regarding the long passages of historical information and the distance caused by the narration. I was disappointed that it wasn’t more like Dumas. The second book is out now, I think, and I’ll probably still be reading it at some point even though I didn’t love this one.



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