Good old-fashioned historical fiction

I have been indulging myself in the last couple of weeks. Rob and I had a few days away in Amsterdam and Brussels – which has meant an awful lot of cheese and chocolate, a fair amount of art and lots of walking – and, since we were travelling by train, I was able to pack a book I’ve been looking forward to for ages. The new Shardlake is something I know a lot of our customers have also been eagerly anticipating – but at 650 pages of historical goodness I do hope they have been doing their weight-training before picking up their copy!

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Shardlake is a great character. We have seen him grow and develop since his first outing – in Dissolution – and particularly in his attitude to religion. This is no surprise since the books cover the same time period, largely, as Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies and the complex political and religious changes of the age feature heavily. Shardlake’s life and career are tied up with those of the King, his Queens and various court figures: some, like Catherine Parr, are friends, others, like Sir Richard Rich, are openly antagonistic towards him. It certainly shows that C.J.Sansom studied history before he went into the legal profession – he obviously does lots of research on both the history and the law covered in the books – and yet the stories are real page-turners. My favourite sort of history is the type which is as easy as this to read!

It seems odd to worry about spoilers in well-researched historical fiction of this nature. We know what happened to Henry VIII, to Catherine Parr and to lesser figures like Anne Askew and Thomas Wriothesley. In the previous book in this series Shardlake spent some time on board the Mary Rose as it was being prepared for war – I spent a lot my time when reading it willing him to get off the ship (I knew it wouldn’t end well for the poor old Mary Rose). And I guess this is where the real beauty of historical fiction lies – the way our unknown heroes and heroines fit in to the actual history. Anyway, without giving too much away, Shardlake and his assistant Barak are both in great danger at various points in this novel – but it seems that, should Edward VI need any grisly murders solving, Shardlake will be around to investigate.

15728386Murder and pathology have featured heavily in the previous books I have read by Ariana Franklin – about a woman doctor who mainly practices as an anatomist since custom means she cannot treat living patients – but they have also been set in a well-researched historical period. The latest volume, Winter Siege, is set slightly earlier during the anarchy surrounding Stephen and Matilda’s battle for the crown and, although the characters are all new, the initial fenland setting and the unflinching descriptions of brutal crimes are just the same. At first I was slightly disappointed – I really liked Adelia Aquilar, the female doctor – but in the end I was glad. Ariana Franklin died before this book was completed and it was finished by her daughter Samantha Norman. The style seems unchanged but I’m not sure I would have wanted a heroine I loved in the hands of any other writer. That said Norman has done a really good job here with great historical detail of both the nobility and lower classes and a terrific plot heavy on blood and sexual predation.

If you, like me, enjoy historical fiction then you will probably already know C.J. Sansom and be looking forward to Lamentation. I would also strongly recommend Ariana Franklin – who may not be as well-known but is well worth looking out for.

Jane

 

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy – Rachel Joyce

cb0cb52e50aaf103a2d4b49bc41b6d9dI don’t know if it is my age but I am not ashamed to say that I was shedding the odd tear at certain points while I was reading this book. I read Harold Fry and enjoyed it very much but it didn’t move me nearly as much as the story of the woman Harold walked so far to see – although both books share the same uplifting feeling (despite the waterworks….)

This is not a sequel or even a prequel to Harold Fry. I would describe it more as a companion piece, sitting quietly alongside the earlier story, offering support and clarification where needed, but not imposing. Which is pretty much the role Queenie took in the part of her life which directly involved Harold so I am quite pleased with that analogy! We see so much more of Queenie, however, than just her relationship with Harold. We get glimpses of her childhood, her education (a first in classics) and her life before moving to Kingsbridge (surprisingly racy – hanging out with artists and taking lovers) as well as after (a lonely beach house in Northumberland with a strangely beautiful garden). Queenie is a beautifully drawn character – so complex and so real. I think you can understand, by the end, why Harold walks over 600 miles to see her again. I think some of the tears I shed were in sorrow that I never got to meet such a remarkable, yet unobtrusive, woman.

Most of them, however, were for the situation Queenie finds herself in towards the end of her life. The situation which led her to send that first, life-changing letter to Harold and to her taking up residence in St Bernadine’s Hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Her illness is touched upon but not in detail – in her original letter she says ‘Last year I had an operation on a tumour, but the cancer has spread and there is nothing to be done’ and I feel that sums up her stoicism. The real beauty of the book, for me, is the description of her days in the hospice and the people she meets there. We don’t get happy endings – this is a hospice after all – but we get to SEE the men and women who have gone there to die. The old are too often invisible in today’s youth-obssessed society – the old and the terminally ill can seem like an embarrassment – so it is just wonderful to have the honour of meeting not only Queenie but Mr Henderson, the Pearly King, Barbara and Finty. It is quite humbling to remember that every person in every hospice up and down the country has a story to tell if only we could hear them.

In the end I think that this book is very life-affirming. Although we witness so much illness, death and grief it is the lives which shine through – and any story which contains so much energy, character and warmth cannot help but make you smile through the occasional tear or two.

Jane