It started with an email from NetGalley, informing me that Posie Graeme-Evans Australia’s ‘most beloved’ storyteller had a new book coming out. Australia’s most beloved storyteller? I’d never read one of Graham-Evan’s books (or watched McLeod’s Daughters). Did this make me Australia’s least loving reader?
I applied for a reviewing copy of Wild Wood.
Now here’s the thing about receiving a reviewing copy of a forthcoming title. You have to read it. Even if it’s tosh and you feel like throwing it in the bin, you have to read it. Then when you’re finished you have to write a review – an honest, hand-on-your heart opinion of the author’s work.
Those are the rules.
But, wait, there’s more to the situation (I am now removing my librarian’s hat and placing the hours-at-the-keyboard-wannabe-writer hat). Writing a novel is hard – hours of research, multiple re-writes, numerous oh-my-God-I’m-having-a-nervous-breakdown moments. It is the sedentary version of running a marathon. The last thing an author needs is a nobody reviewer pointing out her novel’s deficiencies online.
What a dilemma. How does Australia’s least loving reader give a hand-on-the-heart opinion of a work she knows an author has sweated blood over?
Watch. I’m going to apply myself to the task.
Wild Wood by Posie Graeme-Evans
Jesse Marley, a young Australian tourist, arrives in England six weeks prior to the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. She has an envelope in her bag containing her birth certificate. Not the falsified document she’s grown up with – her real birth certificate – showing her birthplace on the Scottish Borders, and her biological mother’s name: Eva Green.
Jesse is determined to find her mother even if she has to call every Green in the phone book.
When Jesse is hit by a motorcycle and suffers a head injury, it would seem her family reunion plans are being thwarted. However, she can’t explain the presence of a mysterious veiled woman in a modern London hospital, or the fact that she is drawing detailed pictures of Hundredfield a fourteenth century castle on the Scottish Borders. Her neurologist Doctor Rory Brandon, recognises the drawings of Hundredfield, his childhood home. His medical training suggests that Jesse’s head injury has made her a savant. But as Jesse’s drawings become more detailed and her hypnotherapy sessions take on a mysterious tone he wonders whether an unknown force from the past is guiding them.
Running parallel to Jesse’s 1981, pre-wedding narrative is that of Bayard, a fourteenth century Norman warrior. Returning to Hundredfield after an injury sustained during a border conflict, Bayard and his brother Maugris find much has changed. Their eldest brother Godefroi has fathered an illegitimate child, by Margretta, daughter of the castle’s reeve. This has caused fear and resentment among the castle servants. A fear and resentment compounded by Godefrois’s choice of wife, the beautiful and mysterious Lady Flore. Flore neither eats nor sleeps. She appears to hold a strange influence over the brutal Godefroi.
This causes many to suspect he is bewitched.
Bayard’s segments of the novel are written in a first-person, past tense point-of-view. In him, Graeme-Evans has achieved the ultimate, a man of his time – violent, superstitious, subservient to his younger brothers, yet authorative with his underlings. Bayard is also tender and vulnerable. His insights concerning the Lady Flore and Margretta the servant girl are poignant, his battle prowess well-drawn and his first person voice evocative.
I could have stayed in his head for hours.
‘That cold summer bled into a wet autumn and, with the sun hidden behind the clouds, the harvest failed again in the border country. By October, a murrain appeared among the cows and the sheep began to founder, their feet rotting in mire that never dried. As the year turned dark, just before the blood month, nights became cold too early and famine stalked the people for they had no store’s of food.’
The modern day sections of the novel are not so stong.
But, wait, here is where the hand-on-heart part of the review comes in. I’ve read a number of these time-slip type novels – Kate Morton, Kate Mosse, Anna Romer – and I invariably prefer the historical sections of the story. Even though, the person in the present is the protagonist, it is always the story from the past that stays with me long after I have closed the novel’s final page. You could therefore call the following observations biased. Though, in this case, I do believe they go beyond personal taste.
In Wild Wood, Jesse is the novel’s protagonist. The 1981 segments are written in an omniscient, third person, present tense point-of-view. As a consequence, we slip into a number of different heads – Jesse’s, Rory’s, Alicia’s, Mack’s Helen’s, Jesse’s adoptive mother…and others. Sometimes, this head-swapping feels appropriate. At other times it breaks the reader’s connection with Jesse. Graeme-Evans also tends to use descriptive action to mark her dialogue. At times, this made the narrative feel almost script-ish, to me.
‘The dining room in The Hunt is crowded, the tables shoved close together to handle the rush.
Rory survey’s the room. He says uneasily, “I forgot about the tourists. Summer rush.”
Swollen-eyed Jesse’s dismayed by the sight of so many people.
From behind the bar a voice calls out, “Who let you in?”
I have read other reviews of Wild Wood. They take an opposing view to mine – declaring the omniscient present-tense viewpoint immediate, vivid and compelling.
You will therefore have to read the book and decide for yourself.
Wild Wood is a compelling read, despite my reservations. Graeme-Evan’s symbolic use of an ancient legend at the heart of the narrative is artful, her descriptions of the castle’s ancient artefacts tactile and considering the novel’s themes, with present day hindsight, the novel’s setting in the lead up to Charles and Diana’s wedding is eerie.
Does this make Posie Graeme-Evans Australia’s most beloved storyteller? Or am I truly Australia’s least loving reader? The jury is still out on that one. But I will be putting Graeme-Evan’s name on my authors-to-look-out-for-in-future list. I will also reserve Wild Wood for a number of my house-bound library clients. By whom, I anticipate her books will be much loved.