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Robert Merle – The Brethren

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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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Meike Ziervogel – Kauthar

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Faith, love, and misunderstanding.

Publisher: Salt
Pages: 144
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-63029-4
First Published: 10th August 2015
Date Reviewed: 17th August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Kauthar, a white Brit, found herself in Islam. A lack of something in her life from childhood led to a conversion that she felt was always her destiny. And so she changes her name, wear hijab, learns to pray. She finds a husband, too, and sticks to her beliefs when questioned by her parents, who continue to call her Lydia. But as the world changes and thus affects Kauthar, she begins to change, too.

Kauthar is Ziervogel’s spectacular third novella, a book about identity and self-worth as much as it is about faith and religion.

Islam, and to a minor extent, Christianity, features in this book, but religion is not a point Ziervogel is making with her character (it is made, so to speak, but in general). What begins as a story about conversion with Islam at its centre (and a great one at that, details later) becomes a story about the English convert who doesn’t really understand the faith she has felt called to, and so ultimately you see religion both from those who truly believe and the convert who misunderstands. Suffice to say Ziervogel’s book is one of great tolerance, of teaching, and of comparisons that seek to show how people of different backgrounds can get along regardless of faith; Ziervogel shows how location is more important, how the place a person calls home, on the earth, defines who they are as much as their faith.

Conversion and religion isn’t the ‘issue’ with Kauthar, not really. It’s her lack of identity, the feelings of displacement she’s felt throughout her life that defines her adulthood. She views situations strongly – falling off the monkey bars at a park in childhood onto her knees she sees as her first step towards Islam, humble and profound. Kauthar, Lydia, has a lot of love in her life, but not quite enough nor of the type she ‘required’; a fine example is the way her mother continues to call her Lydia and wonders when her ‘Muslim phase’ will be over – you, the reader, whether or not you share her faith or even believe in religion at all, feel the brunt of such a brushing off of the faith as much as Kauthar does herself. You see first-hand, if you will, the reason why Kauthar feels the need to pen a long letter about scripture, which is similarly brushed off.

The book is set around 11th September and so Kauthar’s somewhat fragile state breaks apart completely when she feels the need to defend herself, to hide herself, and often out of her own fears rather than others’ opinions, though there is a scene that starts it off. Kauthar feels discomfort, the hatred that Muslims felt at the time, but takes it differently. It makes her defensive in a certain way because Islam has become so intrinsic to her self-worth and identity, something she has to prove as an outsider – Kauthar is Islam and you would certainly say towards the end that Kauthar regards Islam as her. No one is as faithful as her or correct in their faithful ways. In wearing a chador and later bhurka, she is hiding herself away from view, vocally to abide by Allah’s wishes but also, sub-textually, in ways the reader notices but perhaps not the character, to hide from herself and her past. From the husband she loved and who was one with her – now considered not good enough, not Islamic enough. In a way she also hides herself from her own faith which, as suggested by my paragraph on religions, she considers not godly enough.

Lastly, this is a book about love. Love for Allah – seen from many points of view – love for one’s spouse, and love for one’s home. It is in part Rafiq’s feeling that he ought to return to London, that that’s where he should be, that causes the gulf between him and Kauthar. And the love between the couple is true; you see the utter devotion Rafiq has for this woman he felt called to.

In all Ziervogel’s novellas, the prose is lovely but in many ways, most especially here, it’s not the point. The book is all about what isn’t said, what you can see in your imagination as a result of the words. And what’s so special about Kauthar is that you know without a doubt that you have the picture, the scene, correct, even though you know it’s not there on the surface, so to speak. There is nothing else like it. The word ‘unique’ is tossed about, given to everything so that it looses its meaning; in Kauthar it has a worthy cause.

This isn’t to say that this style runs throughout the book – reading between the lines for a whole 144 pages would be a daunting prospect – but it comes at the defining moment. The moment when you realise the section you thought might be info-dump really wasn’t and that it was the first obvious step towards what was going to happen. The moment where a book that you thought you had figured out fairly well takes a new turn, in a written version of what is happening in the character’s reality.

This is a book that takes conversion, the white convert in particular, and looks at the reasons people choose to make the change. It shows how profound, amazing, true conversion and finding one’s religious and faithful self can be, and the joy of that. And none of that is tainted because Ziervogel doesn’t make Kauthar and Islam part and parcel. A lot of research and knowledge accompanies this book.

Kauthar is a very different book about identity that outclasses many others. Highly recommended to those who enjoy the theme as well as those who like diversity and high tolerance in their reading when it comes to western fiction.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Nancy Bilyeau – The Tapestry

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Youth must have some dalliance1.

Publisher: Touchstone (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 380
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-476-75637-0
First Published: 24th March 2015
Date Reviewed: 23rd April 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Joanna Stafford, ex-novice of Dartford Priory has been summoned to London but when she gets there she’s led away by someone who wishes her harm. She doesn’t know who he is and is unable to find out but finding protection she stays, meeting Thomas Culpepper and later her relative, Catherine Howard. Joanna just want to live her life, but she’s a way to go before she can.

The Tapestry is the third and last book in Bilyeau’s series on Joanna. It is well written and, as always, wonderfully blended with the true history, though perhaps not as strong as the previous books.

To the writing then: it is lovely. There are no two ways about it; Bilyeau’s work makes for a good read. There are your odd phrases and words that are a little too colloquial but not glaring when considering the fact the story could hardly be written in Middle English, and Bilyeau continues to evoke the Tudor period in a very natural way; you never feel you’re being taught.

The book is slow to start, in fact the story on the whole is a lot slower than the previous. There is far less action this time around and there isn’t one definitive plotline – this isn’t all about a tapestry. It is nice in that it aids the wrapping up of the series but it does mean there are times you can easily put the book down. Given the content of the story, Joanna comes across as weaker than before though this really is more of a ‘comes across as’ rather than a reality. Sometimes the character seems to take a while to realise what will likely seem obvious to you and this is something that is difficult to either defend or criticise. On one hand Bilyeau is writing about popular history and it’s very likely the reader will know the history prior to reading, ergo you know a certain person is going to become queen number five. On the other hand you’ve got to remember that Joanna Stafford (and so, in this respect, any real person who might have been a semi or regular stranger to the court) would not have known any of it so it makes sense she would take a while to catch on. Hindsight is everything. Joanna does over-think things sometimes; it is fair to say it’s down to the reader to let things unfold as they will.

The best aspect of the novel is one shared with The Crown and The Chalice: the blending of fact and fiction. On top form as always, Bilyeau fills gaps, sometimes to an astounding degree; it’s almost cheeky the length the author goes to but it’s cheeky in a very good way. The blending is exceptional – if you’re not familiar with the series, what Bilyeau essentially does is write her fictional characters into the factual history in a way they can be added and removed without leaving a mark. And this time around, Bilyeau has aimed higher than ever, using our scant knowledge of Catherine Howard’s life to construct one possibility of who the girl was. Joanna does not change anything at a fundamental level; Bilyeau rewrites without rewriting. (This can mean that some subplots seem irrelevant and confusing for a while as Bilyeau seeks to keep the timeline in check and provide background context. The major reasons for the sub-plots become evident in time.)

There is but one element that brings the novel down a couple of rungs. Grammar issues, changing names, and missing words feature throughout the book; the text isn’t always fluid and it can be difficult to stay focused, to not be jolted from the story. The writing itself remains lovely, which is testament to Bilyeau’s talent, but the book does suffer quite a bit from the errors.

The Tapestry takes someone who is surely beloved of many Tudor fiction fans and gives her story, her journey, a firm ending. It is slow (but steady) and does have its drawbacks but it’s a fair end to the series and, no matter how many times you may have read about the history of Catherine Howard, it manages to make you feel as frustrated or sorrowful or angry as you likely did when you first found out about the situation. And that is quite the boon.

1 Line from Pastime With Good Company by Henry VIII.

I received this book for review from the author.

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Jessie Burton – The Miniaturist

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He knows when you are sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)
Pages: 424
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-25089-0
First Published: 3rd July 2014
Date Reviewed: 16th March 2015
Rating: 2.5/5

It’s 1686 and Nella moves to the home of her new husband in Amsterdam. She expects happiness but instead receives a frosty reception – she’s not particularly wanted, her sister-in-law is clearly mistress of the house, the servants seem too big for their boots, and her husband makes no move to consummate the marriage. Instead of the life she thought she would have, Nella finds herself living in a mystery and this only increases further when her husband buys her a miniature of their house and the creator she assigns to complete it appears to know an uncanny amount about the family.

The Miniaturist is a book that could have been amazing but is sadly held back by a lack of focus, poor writing, and a decisive gap between the characters and the readers.

Burton seems to have chosen the 1600s to gain the attention of history lovers. The book could have been set at some other time at no cost, and the characters do not at all conform to the time period. By this I do not mean the way they defy convention – indeed servants on a par with their masters is not unbelievable – more it’s the way Burton wields power that is an issue. As an example, Nella has a fit over something most of her era would naturally have a fit about, before doing an about turn and completely changing her opinion within hours, emulating views of the present day.

Is Nella confident or nervous? Burton cannot decide. One moment her character is close to being obnoxious, the next she’s a delicate flower who will not speak a word. She leaves the house without question one day, then stays in her room and lets people make all the decisions for her the next. It is clear that Nella is a device – this is a plot-driven novel – but there is nothing to hang on to, so to speak. Burton hasn’t made up her mind and wants both worlds.

The characters never come into their own. You’re never given a reason to care about them; they are distant from the first page to the last. A lot of this is down to the way the author chose to write her story – the particular way she uses the present tense, third person narration, does not allow the reader to feel they are at all close to what’s happening. Instead there’s the sense Burton realised, at some point, that she should have been writing in the first person but didn’t want to rewrite what she already had. Nella does lots of thinking and imagining when dialogue would work better. Everything is too detailed, info-dump is common.

Much of the issue is that The Miniaturist is full of drama. Full of drama to a melodramatic, unnecessary degree. As the book progresses it reads ever more like a prose version of a theatrical production, the problem being that theatre has to be expressive to reach the audience at the back of the room but a book by its very nature has no requirement for it. Disaster follows disaster to a silly level and social issues are packed in like sardines.

As said, this book is not very well written. Whilst modern language is natural – a book in old English would be difficult to read – very modern slang and colloquialisms pull you out of the story. Burton moves between ‘oldy-worldy’ English grammar, modern English grammar, and American grammar, making for dialogue that doesn’t ring true. (The characters may be from Amsterdam, but they would not have peppered their language with Spanish grammar, for example.)

Lastly, it must be said questions are not answered. The question of the miniaturist is never answered. There is a half answer that spells out who they are in terms of background, but you never learn the mystery nor do you ever really meet the miniaturist. The question of what will happen to these characters now they are in a bad position is completely forgotten.

The Miniaturist is strictly okay. Read it if you will, but don’t pass up the chance to read another book for this one.

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Elizabeth Fremantle – Sisters Of Treason

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Heads held high as others fall.

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Pages: 450
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-075-38232-48
First Published: 22nd May 2014
Date Reviewed: 1st March 2015
Rating: 4/5

When Lady Jane Grey is killed the future becomes uncertain for her mother and sisters. Regulars at court and related to Queen Mary, no one knows whether or not they will be safe and as time goes on and this doesn’t change, it’s up to the family to try and find a solution.

Sisters Of Treason is the second novel by Fremantle, which looks at the trials (sometimes literal) of the Greys that remained. It also looks at the little known life of minature artist, Levina Teerlinc, filling in the gaps in the history.

It has to be said that this is no Queen’s Gambit, however this is not entirely down to the author. Whereas previously Fremantle chose to write about a queen with plenty of history behind her, this time her subjects are somewhat obscure and did not lead as eventful a life as Katherine Parr. This, then, presents a conundrum: the book is not particularly riveting, but then Fremantle has followed what is known of the history.

Essentially this book was always going to be limited in scope; yet this limitation itself is worth discussing. Katherine and Mary were rarely away from court and, in Mary’s case especially (at least here in this book), they are not particularly fond of court. This means that whereas we are often told – by teachers, television, evidence – that court was a blustering, busy, exciting place, this novel shows us that actually in many ways it was boring. We all know it was stifling, rife with jealousies and full of backstabbing, but ‘boring’ is rarely a word used.

This is to say that Fremantle effectively shows the reader how dull Katherine and Mary’s lives were. Not dull as in to say unworthy of study, but dull because they had to remain at court when they may not have wanted to. There is the threat of death ever lingering in the background, but as a conflict it is not very strong – it could be said that this is a character-driven story when generally factually-based historical novels straddle both plot and character, tending towards plot as their backbone. It could thus be said that this would have made better non-fiction.

Fremantle makes as much as she can of the known history, and chooses to incorporate less reliable evidence only when it suits her plot. As an example we have Mary, who has a crooked back, scoliosis perhaps. It is interesting to look at this example in light of the recent discovery of Richard III’s body. It was constantly debated whether or not Richard had scoliosis, whether or not we should trust the words of those historical figures who may simply have hated him, and in discovering his body it was found that those people were speaking the truth. All this to say that, given Richard III, if Mary was reported to be crook-backed then it’s very possible she was and thus despite the general lack of evidence in the pictures we have of her, Fremantle’s decision to incorporate a disability into her fictionised Mary’s life is something to savour. Fremantle makes a point of studying the culture in terms of disability, which is aided by her extra focus on Levina Teerlinc.

Teerlinc, a rarity in medieval history – a female artist – is little known, and so Fremantle’s dealing of her is largely similar to the character of Dot from Queen’s Gambit. Through Teerlinc Fremantle explores not only the Tudor working woman but the world beyond the court and the politics in the wider world that merit a totally difference handling when discussed inside the privy chamber.

It should be noted that the dispositions of queens Mary and Elizabeth are not favourable, which in the case of the latter may surprise you. However it is perfectly reasonable considering the viewpoints used – Katherine and Mary were not going to like Bloody Mary and if Elizabeth held them prisoner, it’s safe to say they wouldn’t have considered her especially wonderful, either.

Sisters Of Treason looks at the life of those who might have wished for something that would have rendered them even less well-known. Whether you will like it or not really depends on how open you are to the idea of sitting sewing beside the window whilst the world passes you by. It is likely to interest those with a prior interest in the sisters; as for others it is hard to say. The book is certainly well written and full of factual information you won’t forget in a hurry. Indeed the only written element that is cause for thought is the French of Frances Brandon, of which there is a lot.

Sisters Of Treason focuses on hope when everything else is lost. It’s packed with history and is an excellent example of good research and writing. It is respectful of the historical figures it uses, but it should be noted that it is steeped in anxiety and sadness and that the conflict is less apparent then is generally expected.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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