This week, allonymbooks novelist Evie Woolmore reviews novels by two other British authors.
How historical does a historical novel have to be? From the dramatisation of facts and characters to stories simply set in the past, the challenge for any writer is to balance authenticity with narrative drive. It might be historically accurate but is it a good story? Harriet Steel’s novel Salvation, set in the England of the first Queen Elizabeth, does a pretty good job of balancing these two aspects, and gives us a romance, a spy thriller, and a history lesson in one.
Tom Goodluck, a clerk with ambitions to be a playwright, is having an affair with Meg, a lady of reasonable wealth whose husband is thoroughly unpleasant. But when Tom’s employer is found dead, Tom is charged with the murder and must leave the love of his life to save himself. Meg too is soon forced to run away and the novel is, in one sense, a weaving of their respective stories as they try to survive in the harsh social and religious realities of Elizabethan England. But Tom has also met Alexandre Lamotte, who not only puts on Tom’s play in pre-Shakespearean London, but has a double life as a spy for the Queen’s main agent Walsingham. Ms Steel uses the stories of these three main characters to show many complexities in England at that time: the persecution of the Catholics, the tensions between England and Spain, and the brutalities of being poor.
The novel is peopled with a large number of minor characters and it covers enormous ground geographically and in the passing of time. We are reminded of how long news took to travel in the sixteenth century, and how violent that era was. There are a couple of quite brutal scenes which may make those of a tender disposition feel a little pale, but many would argue that it is the responsibility of a historical novelist not to shirk that responsibility. On that same point, for this reviewer there was perhaps a bit too much historical information at times: while Ms Steel’s dialogue and description are extremely well crafted, there are quite a lot of descriptive passages, particularly in one historically significant section near the end (which I won’t spoil by naming) and this is perhaps where the ‘historical’ overtakes the ‘novel’ at times. For in doing justice to Ms Steel’s excellent research, the pace is sometimes slowed. Nonetheless, this is a really good read, and I couldn’t help thinking at the end that it could have made an excellent first novel in a series featuring Tom and Lamotte.
These Fragile Things is an essay on survival: what does it mean to survive? How do we define successful survival? And when one’s life has changed dramatically, how are those around us dragged in to our experience of surviving? When teenager Judy is almost killed in 1982 by a falling tree, her parents respond in very different ways. Her mother, Elaine, is bogged down by the practicalities while her father, Graham, makes a pact with God. In this intense, emotionally complex novel, we witness (in the Biblical sense as well as the literal narrative sense) how Judy’s survival impacts not only on her parents, but those around her. And we wonder – along with all the characters in the book – whether and how that pact with God has manifested itself in the deeply spiritual visions Judy then has.
This book could be seen as an exploration of the impact of the embrace of religion on routine domestic life, but that would be to oversimplify what I think the author is trying to do. This book is more about our desire to explain what happens to us, to justify the tipping of the scales of existence to one side or the other, and our desire to maintain an equilibrium when everything changes. For me, the novel became particularly interesting once Judy began to experience her visions, and the author has done a clever balancing act herself by showing the impact of these extraordinary claims by Judy on two religious figures, Sister Euphemia from Judy’s new convent school, and Father Patrick, Graham’s priest. Their negotiations of their religion with the tensions of the real world are an interesting counterbalance to Graham’s absorption in Catholicism as the means of his salvation and Judy’s.
Without giving away the plot of the novel, what becomes apparent in the last part is that Graham’s initial evaluation of what it means for Judy’s to survive is challenged. Just as the novel explores in great detail the dynamics of a marriage under pressure, and the pervasive influence of memory and the past in shaping our present choices and how we remember what is happening to us right now, it also explores the dynamics of guilt about that survival. When Judy is labelled the Miracle Girl, she becomes the focus for everyone else’s grief and trouble, not to mention the focus for some equally faithless and lurid speculation about her family. Judy is positioned as responsible for the fates of others because hers seems to have been decided by God.
I would like to have read more about what Judy herself thought about that. We learn quite a lot about Judy’s experiences of her visions, but less about the impact of their consequences on her, such as what she feels about all the people who flock to her door. And while the author has evoked the social and cultural atmosphere of 1982 very effectively, for me there is a bit of a muddling in the narrative voice between the subjective stream of consciousness of Elaine and Graham in particular, and the omniscience of the writer, which occasionally makes Elaine and Graham sound a bit too objective about what is happening to them.
This novel will be about different things depending on who is reading it: about the internal pressures on a family in a crisis; a meditation on how teenagers and their parents negotiate changes brought on by growing up; about the difference between religion and faith and the sheer power of belief. The claustrophobic emotional intensity of the characters makes this novel unputdownable at times, but whatever you believe about Judy, this book will make you think.