Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: book review

The House with Old Furniture by Helen Lewis

I haven’t read a book set in Wales for a while. But my hiraeth is running deep at the moment (time to plan my next trip) and when Helen Lewis’ House with Old Furniture dropped into my inbox, it had my name written all over it. Not an historical novel, The House with Old Furniture, nonetheless fuses the past with the present, and has the mystical, otherworldly elements I so enjoy in a novel.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of Evie and her son Finn, The House with Old Furniture opens with these words:

“I don’t want to leave. I am being ripped from the rock I cling to. A whirlpool of change drags me down, pulling me into the very bottom of its vortex.

“I want to stay. I need to stay, clinging to all the memories made here, ensuring they remain sharp and deeply etched. Because if I go who will say – remind people even – that this is where we had our first row, over there in the corner of the garden is where the snowman you built stood for two weeks, and round that corner where the tarmac cracks you came off your bike, you still had the scar ten years later, that little  white smile on your kneecap.”

Evie is being forced to leave her home in London – the home where her dead son Jesse lived and died – in order to start life anew in West Wales. A move that has been planned and executed by her husband Andrew. You can see the sense of this decision, despite Evie’s anguish, and hope that despite her reluctance, that the move will prove to be cathartic. Because it is evident from the outset that Evie is not moving on. But as soon as they arrive in Wales, the ghosts arrive – ghosts that both Evie and Finn can see – and you begin to realise there is more to Evie’s grief than meets the eye. That there is a dark underbelly to Andrew’s actions that is not initially apparent.

The House with Old Furniture is a chilling novel. I found myself wondering where Lewis’ inspiration came from. “I wanted to write something that looked at madness,’ she explained; “exploring what one person might see as crazy when the other sees the same thing as normal. I think I’ve produced something along those lines. I hadn’t expected the ghosts to turn up!”

The ghosts are unusual. They are not ghoulish or intangible or the least bit frightening but real historical characters breaking through time and interacting with the present. They have their own story which illuminates the contemporary tale that Lewis is unfolding. I asked whether she set out to write an historical piece.

“No I didn’t! If you asked me to write an historical piece I would run screaming to the hills, all that research that needs to be done. But The House with Old Furniture just wrote itself that way. And actually, because the historical parts are in small sections throughout, I didn’t find the research so daunting. I did have to keep a detailed timeline though, making sure all the dates and ages were feasible.”

Finn’s naive voice was the triumph of the novel. I asked Lewis how she came to include him. “When I started writing The House with Old Furniture it was from Evie’s perspective but I quickly realised that without Finn’s presence the story would be very two dimensional. He is my favourite character and I actually think it is Finn who tells the tale.”

I have to agree with Lewis’ analysis. Through Finn’s naive eyes, we begin to see the truth about Evie, to get a sense that things haven’t been right in this family for quite awhile.

“She so doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get any-fuckin-thing, not computers, not me, not moving’ not Dad – most of all not me. It was all OK before – well almost, I mean she got drunk, got all loud and lairy, then woke up messy sometimes, but now … now Dad’s the invisible man and she’s … she’s rubbish. Like yesterday, she was makin’ tea and spilt the peas everywhere – and that’s her, bits of Mum everywhere. She sat there in a mess, not movin’ not even cryin’ – might’ve been another of her blackouts, an’ I thought, I don’t care! Get up and be my mum again! It’s not just Jesse that’s gone, he’s taken them all with him. Left me here alone, where everyone mopes about because we’re all too sad to do stuff anymore.”

There is a darkness to this family’s history, a darkness that we quickly realise will not be erased by a simple move to the country. But although, Evie’s mental health is fragile, the chilling depth of her insanity is not initially apparent. Nor are the dynamics of power, coercion and abuse that have contributed to her demise. As the story unfolds and the pieces start falling into place, we glimpse a situation that is both timelessly haunting and frighteningly modern. I asked Lewis whether her next novel will tackle similar issue. She assures me it will not be as chilling as The House with Old Furniture. “Having spent five years with some dark and difficult characters I wanted to create some people with a bit of humour. I think it is beginning to take shape, they certainly make me laugh anyway!”

I will certainly be looking out for the next instalment by this talented new author. Meanwhile, I fear it will be some time before I can exorcise the ghosts The House with Old Furniture has awakened in me.

In flight entertainment – a review of Kim Kelly’s Paper Daisies

I boarded flight QF 9 to London with lofty intentions (I always do), reading journal articles about Welsh soldiers in the Hundred Years War as I waited to board our delayed flight. I even pulled out my battered paperback copy of Life on an English Manor and started making notes in the margins. But there is something mind numbing about a long-haul flight and after I woke from my first crick-necked sleep and realized there was nothing I fancied on the inflight entertainment, I gave myself over to the pleasures of Kim Kelly’s Paper Daisies.

Set at the turn of the century, on the eve of Australia’s Federation, Berylda Jones has passed her first year at Sydney University with flying colours. She is returning to the home of her despised uncle Alec for Christmas. Meanwhile, botanist, Ben Wilbery, fulfills his mother’s dying wish by heading to Bathurst in search of a rare wildflower. Perpetually awkward with women, Ben is enraptured on meeting Berylda and agrees to accompany her on a journey to the old gold rush town of Hill End, little realizing the excursion is part of a desperate plan to free her sister from their guardian’s sadistic clutches

“How odd, it’s no man I have ever seen before, here or anywhere, yet there is something strangely familiar about him. Long flaxen hair like a traveling minstrel, tweed britches and a haversack, he’s travelled of the pages of some great, strapping Walter Scott adventure and up to our yard.”…

… “I lose my way on the words as I look back at the girl and see she is not a girl at all but a young woman, compactly made. She is wearing a blue dress, a blue gown; she is a piece of the sky drifted down onto this chocolate box verandah.”

Inspired by the misogyny experienced during Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, Paper Daisies is a mesmerizingly meditative novel about the powerless of women that is set against the backdrop of the early Australian struggle for women’s franchise. Told in the alternating first person viewpoints of Berylda and Ben, Kelly manages to capture the male-dominated political atmosphere of rural Australia, the violence and abuse against women that ofttimes went unchecked and the courage of those who fought to overcome their desperate situations. The relationship between Ben and Berylda is a necessary silver thread against the dark subject matter of this novel yet despite its tenderness the narrative is never in danger of becoming a tale of about a man rescuing a woman.

Once embarked on this novel, I couldn’t stop its pages from turning. Though I did allow myself a few writerly sighs of envy at the fiercely drawn characterization, the unique viewpoint voices and the delightful freshness of Kelly’s prose. As we begin our descent into Heathrow, I can honestly say that the hours spent on this flight have not been wasted, even if I did not fulfill my lofty intentions. I am also painfully aware that as a writer I have a long way to go.

Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact – a review of Alison Goodman’s latest book

Confession, I don’t generally read paranormal fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a bit of era-appropriate mysticism within well-researched historical novel. But not a complete cosmic struggle that has no basis in reality. However, having enjoyed enjoyed Alison Goodman’s first paranormal Regency adventure novel, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club, I decided to dip my toe in the alternate genre-pool for a second time. I wasn’t disappointed. Why? I will list my reasons below. But first, let me set the scene.

Having come into her full Reclaimer powers, on the eve of her presentation ball, in a most scandalous manner, Lady Helen Wrexhall has been banished from her family and forced to take up residence in the fashionable seaside resort of Brighton. Under the pretext of a restorative holiday, Lady Helen is in fact being trained to fight dangerous energy-wielding Deceivers under the auspices of the Dark Days Club. But the Dark Days Club is riven by tensions. The most alarming being the violent and erratic behaviour of Lady Helen’s Reclaimer mentor Lord Carlston. When Lady Helen is given a secret commission by Mr Pike of the Home Office, she is unsure whether her actions will pull the afflicted Lord Carlston back from the brink, or lead to his complete destruction.

Enticing? Indeed! Here are some reasons to take the plunge:

Historical authenticity

Despite its paranormal elements, the Regency setting of Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact and, indeed its predecessor, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Club,  are impeccably researched. The  voice is third-person narrative voice is well pitched, the Regency manners exquisite, and the description of the clothes tactile. You can almost hear the rustle of the women’s dresses. Despite the fact that, Lady Helen has supernatural abilities that take her into most unladylike situations, she never  loses her Regency sensibilities. Here is a section from when she meets Mr Pike from the Home Office:

No bow from Mr Pike. Not even an acknowledgement of her arrival. She knew this game: her uncle used to ignore people when they came into the room too. A way to assert his authority.

She crossed to the damask armchair set opposite its matching sofa and noted a portable mahogany writing box on the low marble table, with trimmed pen, inkwell and sand pot laid out. Mr Pike had come prepared but for what?

‘Geoffrey,’ she said over her shoulder to the footman. ‘Tea please.’

‘No,’ Pike said. ‘No tea. I do not want interruptions.’

Helen paused in taking her seat. The man was a boor. ‘As you wish. No tea, Geoffrey. You may go.’

The footman bowed and withdrew, closing the door. At the corner of her eye, Helen saw Mr Hammond take up a position beside her chair — an unmistakable declaration. The lines were drawn.

Skilful Weaving of Fact and Fiction

Far from being divorced from history, the deaths, scandals, and political tensions attributed to the Deceivers are linked to real events, such as the rise of Napoleon, Luddite demonstrations, the notorious Ratcliffe Highway Murders, and even unexplained violence associated with real members of the nobilty —such as the Comte and Comtess ‘dAntraigues. Although, I did not for a minute believe these forces actually existed, the skilful interweaving of fact and fiction enabled me to suspend disbelief for the duration of the novel.

Non-cliche paranormal elements

I’m not big paranormal reader, as stated, but, I’ve read enough to have a fairly good idea of the tropes — an encroaching darkness, the rise of a redeemer with special powers, cursed artefacts, forbidden bonds, mentors, secret initiation ceremonies, special training…I could go on. Goodman’s talent is to render these tropes in tactile and non-cliched forms. To take a string of pearls, for instance, and to bring them to life as she did in her Eon/Eona duo-logy. Or craft an enchanted knife with curved glass blade and ivory handle made by Josiah Wedgwood.

URST (that’s unrequited sexual tension in writers speak).

Take two handsome, well dressed upper-class men, one with a dark troubled past and a dead wife, whom he is accused of murdering, the other kind, protective and determined to save Lady Helen from the fate of the aforementioned wife, and you have a situation. Add in supernatural powers, a forbidden bond and the constraints of well-bred Regency society and you have dynamite. Having lit the fuse, Goodman lets it sizzle towards an agonizing conclusion, which left this reader crying no! no! no! As a consequence, I will now be hanging out for the next instalment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr – a review of Gideon Brough’s recent publication

I am not an historian. I’m an historical fiction writer. There is a difference. For although I’m pretty pedantic about getting details right, I am primarily driven by narrative. Which is fortunate, because in researching, my current project, a novel from the viewpoint of Owain Glyn Dŵr’s wife, there is precious little historical detail to go on. We know she was born, Margaret Hanmer, that her father was David Hanmer, Justice of the King’s Bench under Richard II. She married Owain Glyn Dŵr at some point, gave birth to an unspecified number of children and as a consequence of her husband’s revolt, died in the Tower of London. If she had not married Owain Glyn Dŵr, she’d probably have died in peaceful old age. Her name lost forever to history. However, she did marry Glyn Dŵr. The decision (most likely that of her parents) had an undeniable impact on her life. Therefore, to novelise Margaret, I must begin with the man himself.

Until recently, the most comprehensive work on Owain Glyn Dŵr was The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr by R. R. Davies. Now, I am not an historian, remember. I’m attuned to narrative and, no matter how erudite and comprehensive and well researched I found Davies work, I couldn’t help noticing his narrative had holes. Which is why I’ve been hanging out for the publication of The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr by Gideon Brough.

I’d listened to a podcast by Dr. Brough and noticed he had a slightly different take on the outbreak of the Glyn Dŵr’s revolt. One that promised a more credible version of events. As it turned out, the book had a great deal to offer, on a number of levels. But let’s start with the outbreak.

By general consensus, Owain Glyn Dŵr was the son of a disinherited Welsh princely house, after the death of both parents he became a state ward, he studied at the Inns of Court in London, held lands in Cynllaith, Merioneth and Cardiganshire, married the daughter of a minor Anglo-welsh landowner and took part in a number of English military campaigns. After which, in 1388, he disappeared from the historical record. We next hear of him in September 1400 when he lead a cavalry raid against a number of English boroughs. Although, it can not be fully substantiated, the general consensus is that the raid was sparked by a border dispute with his neighbour Reginald Grey and that, prior to setting out on the above raid, Glyn Dŵr  was declared Prince of Wales.

In narrative terms, there a is a huge leap between a young man who appeared to be living a conventional, upper-class life and the same man declaring himself Prince of Wales. In an attempt to leap this chasm, Davies had his own go at storytelling — theorising that Glyn Dŵr rebelled in September 1400 because he had not been knighted on a military campaign in 1387. He had allegedly gone home from that campaign, sulked for ten years and finally decided that the remedy was to declare himself Prince of Wales. Then a year later when, it looked the Prince of Wales thing wasn’t going to fly, he tried to negotiate his way out of the situation. Apart from the fact that this is a singularly unattractive narrative, there is also no evidence for the sulky, failed-knight theory. As far as I can’t tell, only three Welsh men had been knighted between the conquest of Wales and 1388. Three in over a hundred years. None of them Welsh barons, like Glyn Dŵr, who were descendants of the Welsh princes and the natural leaders of their people. So, why would Glyn Dŵr have expected it?

So what does Brough make of the outbreak? For a start, he questions the veracity of Glyn Dŵr starting a national revolt in September 1400. This makes sense to me, seeing as the primary evidence we have for this claim comes from two hysterical English legal proceedings in which Glyn Dŵr was said to be:

Plotting, conspiring, and intending the death and disinheriting of the said lord king and the everlasting extinction of the crown and regality of himself and of all his successors, the kings of England; the death of Henry, Prince of Wales, the first born son of our said king, of all the magnates and nobles of England; and also the death destruction and everlasting distinction of the whole English language.

If Glyn Dŵr truly did set out to do all those things he was a Froot Loop. End of story. Presuming he wasn’t (and most evidence points to him being well-educated, sensible and amenable), then it is not unreasonable to assume that he may not have been declared Prince of Wales in September 1400 either. In support of this theory, Brough points out that Glyn Dŵr did not style himself as Prince of Wales in the early letters he wrote to leaders in Scotland and Ireland, or in the letter he wrote to Henry Dwn in 1403. During Glyn Dŵr’s parleys with crown officials in late 1401, it appears the reinstatement of his lands was all he sought. The theory being that, through the aforementioned border dispute with his neighbour, Glyn Dŵr had been unjustly dispossessed of his inheritance and, having failed to remedy the situation by legal means, had been forced into rebellion.

In addition to the above, Brough argues that Glyn Dŵr wasn’t the first to arms in 1400, that there were a number of other unrelated uprisings occurring in the region at the time. However, as the harsh response to the revolt pushed the disaffected Welsh into further rebellion and Glyn Dŵr’s parleying failed to bear fruit, he had no choice but to take on the national cause. At which point the disparate Welsh groups coalesced under his leadership.

Now, that, is narrative I can work with.

In addition to this original thinking on the outbreak of the revolt, The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr has a number of additional strengths. Far too many to discuss in full on this blog. However, one of the ways in which it stands out from earlier works, is the way in which it sets the revolt in the context of the Hundred Years War. Davies and before him, J. E. Lloyd, made little of this connection. However, Glyn Dŵr’s alliance with France, the subsequent treaties, declarations, military aid and even the eventual failure of the revolt are all inextricably linked to the long running conflict between England and France and indeed the schism within Christendom. Even the stand off between the Welsh/French and English armies outside Worcester cannot be adequately explained unless you take the regional tensions into account. In light of these manoeuvrings, Brough’s theory of what actually happened at Worcester and the possible ensuing treaty are a refreshing addition to the previously vague analysis of this part of the revolt. As is his description of the diplomatic manoeuvring that paved the way for an eventual English military victory.

A final strength, and perhaps one I am ill-equipped to judge in any measurable sense, is the book’s authority on military matters. I’ve read a number of books on Welsh soldiers and English military campaigns in relation to this era. They all made sense in a dry, academic, yes-I-suppose-that’s-what-happened kind of way. However, when reading The Rise and Fall of Owain Glyn Dŵr I had a sense of the author’s authority. Whether it was discussing how many boroughs could realistically have been attacked in September 1400, how fast troops could be moved, the explanation of what terms like ‘a thousand lances’ actually meant, evidence of troop movements on the landscape, prisoner exchanges, negotiations, parleys, the assaults on castles, the muster letters sent out in 1403, even the analysis of Owain’s letters to France, Scotland and Ireland show evidence of a trained military mind. This is not an element of the book that can be endorsed definitively by one as non-military minded as myself. But it made me sit up and notice.

So what am I left with? A woman who married a man who was unjustly treated by the government of his day and became the leader of a national rebellion. How did she feel about that rebellion? What contribution did she make to his efforts? How did she respond to the loss of her home, her lands and, eventually her liberty? No one knows the answers to those questions, at least not in a way that can be historically verified. The novelist’s job is to fill in the gaps in a way that is true to the human heart and hopefully also the era in which the story is set. At least now I have a portrait of Glyn Dŵr I can work with.

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