Categories
Prose

A Short Story Told in Fragments

This week I’ve been attending the BCLT Summer School (British College of Literary Translators). I’m privileged enough to have gotten a scholarship through doing the Literary Translation course at UEA. Non-stop talks and workshops on creative translation Monday to Saturday! And somehow I’m still managing to teach and work on my dissertation in between. And what a perfect week to pick to be constantly on Zoom in the bakingly hot spare room, sun glaring through the glass? A heatwave week with temperatures pushing thirty degrees every day. I am English. Thirty degrees is ten degrees too high, if you ask me. On a beach in Crete? Thirty is splendid. On Zoom in Stowmarket? No, thank you.

Anyway, the creative writing workshop this morning was on fragmented short stories: short stories that the reader pieces back together by reading several subjective accounts. We worked small groups and had to pick a situation, and then write four police testimonies from different people in different voices, each not telling the whole truth or with something to hide. We picked a situation: a protest, during which a shop burns to the ground. I was the shopkeeper. This is my testimony. What am I hiding? That’s the question:


Shop burns down in Greytown: Shopkeeper’s testimony 

I was watching the situation unfold out of the front window of my shop all morning. People were wearing dark clothes, balaclavas and waving clubs and knives. It was all quite terrifying, really. Of course, I didn’t open up the shop that day, I wasn’t going to invite trouble. I sell furniture, so nothing was going to spoil if I stayed closed for one day, if you know what I mean. Of course, I can understand why they were angry, why they wanted to go out onto the streets that day, but whatever happened to peaceful protest, no masks, out in the open? 

I was inside, with the lights off, making used of the shop being closed during the day to do an inventory in the back room when, all of a sudden, I heard a humongous thud and a crash from out front. I’d pulled the bars across the shop window, so the brick hadn’t been able to completely smash through, but it’d made sizeable fractures in the shatterproof glass, like a spider’s web.  

At that point, I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t call the police, no doubt they were all busy with what was going on across the city that day – and, anyway, even if I had called you at that point, how would you have gotten to me in time? The protestors, or rioters by this point, were thick outside my doors like sardines in a tin and moving so slowly it could have been the highway to Woodstock! 

That was about when I started to smell the smoke. Lightly at first, like someone had burned toast. Then more and more strongly, like a BBQ gone wrong, and then I knew that someone had set fire to my shop. My shop, full of flammable, priceless antique furniture! I couldn’t have been more devastated. The shop was my life’s work, my father’s life’s work, my pride and joy! 

The fire was set at the front of the shop, around the door and the wooden windowframes. That’s where the smoke started pouring from first. I immediately knew it had to be one of the rioters. I tried to keep it at bay with the fire extinguisher on the wall, I emptied its whole contents, but the fire was just too strong for it. It greedily devoured all of that tinder-dry, antique wood. I had to abandon my shop and escape through the back door before things got too dangerous for me in there.  

The alley behind the shop is quite quiet, but I could still hear the distant shouts and screams of the protestors from the Main Street in front of the shop, like a pack of wild hyenas. I called the emergency services, I tried to get through to the fire brigade, but of course the line was always engaged. It was chaos all over the city that day. I had to watch as my livelihood burned to the ground.  

By the time the fire brigade arrived hours later, there was nothing left to save. There’s nothing left for me now but to just pick up the pieces and move on, I guess. But I hope your catch the bastard that did it. 

Categories
Prose

Microfiction: Metamorphosis II

I watched it happening from afar. There was no other way around it, no way to stay close to her.

She would cook in the sun, unabashed, unhurried, turning the bright pink of a ripe lobster. Her thin blue veins turned green and bulged from her skin like the ropes of a ship, and she shuffled prison-inmate circles in the garden. She would shush me to listen to the bees when I took my newspaper outside and tried to make conversation. She would close her eyes, tip her head back and smile at their low, robotic drone. I kept leaving bowls of food at her feet like offerings to the gods, but she wouldn’t even look at them. They went cold, solidified and attracted flies until I gave in and took them away again to save myself the tragic sight.

She used to be beautiful. Her eyes were like downturned almonds, peppered at the edges with a blush of freckles. Her hair was the soft, dark brown of ground coffee, her smile like opening the tin. She’d always hated her visible her ears were when she put her hair up in a ponytail or a bun, so she hardly ever wore it up. But I always liked it because it made her look like a forest mouse.

Categories
Prose

Microfiction: Metamorphosis

Somehow things just started getting slower. I found myself spending more time in the garden, stretching my arms out towards the sun. Instead of drinking, I found it much more refreshing to soak my feet in cold water, especially on those hot summer days when the heat seems to echo all around you. I inhaled all day and exhaled all night. I didn’t sleep, or not exactly, but I liked to rest standing up and, by the first light of dawn, my fingertips were often wet with dew.

I stopped eating, but I’m not sure when. Food just slowly became a memory. My stomach turned at the thought of scrambled eggs or even a banana. At first, he would still cook for me and leave the bowls close to where I stood, but then whisk them away again, days later, untouched.

The lazy hum of bees filled my days. And the sunlight. I would bask in its glow. Small animals would shelter in my shade. The bees would throb their way through the blossoms slowly replacing my hair.

When it rained, small drops would filter through my fingers and gather into larger drops before falling to the ground. Sometimes they would land on an insect like divine intervention. When it rained, I could feel my roots shifting, spreading downwards, searching.

That was after I’d stopped moving. My roots stopped me moving, pulled me towards the earth. I was enmeshed, a sentinel. My arms, my branches, would tilt slightly. My leaves would unfurl in the East first. I was a sundial.

At some point, I must have closed my eyes, but when I closed them, I could only see the universe, stretched out before me like a carpet or a Torah roll. A vast nebula, a tight weave of knots. Some of them were burning, some were growing, some were dying.

Categories
Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Microreview: Hillary Jordan’s ‘Mudbound’

Mudbound: Amazon.co.uk: Jordan, Hillary: 8601404815065: Books

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Think To Kill a Mockingbird, add a few more convincing African American voices, and a lot more mud. Spellbinding.

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

WSPU Summer Festival, 1913

Contextual Note:

This work has grown from my research on the WSPU’s militant suffrage campaign in Britain, specifically the life of Kitty Marion‒ a crucial yet under-remembered figure in the movement. The main thrust of my novel will cover the years of heightened violence‒ 1912-1913 ‒however the first chapter in this submission goes back to Kitty Marion’s childhood, a time when she was still Katherina Maria Schäfer: a lone, 15-year-old German migrant on the ferry to Harwich. 

Between the years 1886 and 1913, Kitty builds up a moderately successful career on-stage in music halls and theatres all around Great Britain. Kitty wrote an autobiography which was only published in full in 2019. This has formed the backbone of my research. I have taken the events of her life and worked them into a narrative, rather than lifting description or dialogue verbatim.

Kitty comes from a middle-class family, yet never marries and becomes financially independent from a young age. She joins the WSPU in 1908 after attending a rally in Hyde Park on ‘Women’s Sunday’. Katherina had a traumatic childhood at the hands of her father. This, coupled with abuse and exploitation by her acting agents, forms the main impetus for her involvement in the campaign for the Vote, which she believed would be a means to fight issues such as sexual/child abuse and financial exploitation. As a militant WSPU campaigner, she instigated several arson attacks and was considered one of the most dangerous women in the country by Asquith’s government. These chapters depict Kitty as a militant, talking with fellow militants at the WSPU’s Summer Festival in Kensington, and then carrying out an arson attack on the Hurst Park Racecourse in Richmond. The arson chapter cuts off on a cliff-hanger at around the halfway point.

Aside from Kitty Marion, the characters of Emily Wilding Davison, Mary Leigh and Clara Giveen are all also real. I found out via Kitty’s autobiography that she spoke with Emily the day before her widely-renowned actions at the Epsom Derby, although Kitty does not go into detail. The arson attack was carried out four days later in Emily’s honour. Ilse Brightwell is, however, a figment of my imagination drawn from passages in the autobiography where other ferry passengers showed a concern for Kitty’s welfare.


3rd June, 1913 

“I’m thinking of making a protest.” Emily’s words land abruptly between the three of them.

Mary pauses, cup halfway to lips. 

Kitty arches an eyebrow. Making a protest, isn’t that all they ever do? 

In the hall, waitresses mill around with businesslike grace, carrying trays laden with tea sets and cakes to the eager customers. Their green high-necked dresses and white muslin aprons could look clinical if it weren’t for the purple ribbons fixed around their waists. A few have pinned pristine white flowers in their hair. The mood, aside from their little table, is buoyant. Most of the waitresses are smiling. 

Kitty’s attention turns back to the table. She looks Emily in the eye.

“My dear, you’ll have to be more specific,” Kitty lowers her teacup delicately onto its saucer. She’s had twenty-seven years to grow accustomed to these English habits.  

Above Kitty’s head, purple, white and green banners flutter from the rafters, streaming with ribbons. The colours are everywhere. She leans back and tunes in to the vibrant hustle and bustle of the bazaar. Laughter and chatter rise above more hushed and conspiratorial exchanges. To her left, a group of young women sit huddled around a map, heads almost touching. Towards the back of the tea-room, a group of upper class ladies’ pale necks groan under the weight of their extraordinary hats. At another table, a group of plainly-dressed women converse in the no-nonsense drawl of the East End. So many processions, depositions, marches, speeches, festivals; every time they gather, it’s astonishing. Over her friend’s heads, she can see clusters of schoolgirls pulling at each other’s sleeves so as not to lose each other in the throng. Maybe they’ve begged the entrance fee from their fathers that morning, claiming a forgotten field trip to Kew Gardens. They can’t have seen so many women in one place before, free of men. They must be overwhelmed.  

Emily has been quiet, but now her reply seems to burst from within. “Something dramatic. Something unforgettable. Something to make those bastards at Westminster really sit up and take notice.” 

“What are you planning?” Kitty asks. Her thoughts flash to the postboxes. To the severe burns up those postmen’s arms. It was all over the papers. An outrage, they said. That one wasn’t Emily’s work, it was up in Dundee. But the risks are the same every time.

Emily looks from her fingers to Mary, then Kitty, then back to her hands. They’re clutching her cup, knuckles turning the colour of aged plaster. Kitty wonders whether it will survive the assault. She imagines a brittle hairline fracture splitting and shattering. 

“I keep thinking about how the King will be there, and his wife. Standing in their box, surveying their fiefdom.” Emily’s lip curls, “We need a great tragedy. Every year, a new bill dies, and they do nothing. All the while, the Kaiser’s busy polishing his Dreadnoughts. We’re running out of time, and we have nothing to show for it. Nothing.” 

Her trembling threatens to swirl tea into her saucer like a Channel storm. Kitty sends a hand over the tablecloth in a rescue attempt. An awkward few seconds tick by. Mary looks at Kitty, cocks her head, eyes pleading say something. Kitty sighs.

“I know, Pem. We’re all tired of waiting,” Kitty uses her friend’s nickname to get her attention. Emily looks up. 

Kitty, encouraged, goes on. “We’re not young anymore. We can’t keep doing this forever,” she gives Emily’s hand a friendly squeeze, thinking back to her last great tragedy. A thirty-foot drop from the interior balcony of Holloway prison. A desperate protest, or a cry for help? They know, everyone knows, how she sometimes draws her curtains and doesn’t come out for days. She would never ask for help, but members still leave shopping at her door.  

Emily’s a ticking time bomb, Kitty thinks. She can see the headlines already: hysterical, crazed terrorist. But it doesn’t matter what they do, the words stay the same. 

“I have to disrupt the race.” 

That much Kitty could have guessed. So she asks another question. 

“How?” 

Emily doesn’t reply. Either she doesn’t know yet, or she doesn’t want to say… Kitty hopes it’s not the latter. And she doesn’t look well. Pale, worn. She’s left her head bare today. It’s better not to ask if she’s sold another of her summer hats. 

Mary, across the table, is hiding behind her teacup. Kitty tries and fails to catch her eye. She’s never been particularly tactful. But Kitty doesn’t know what to say, either. Didn’t they all swear to lay down their lives for the Cause? How far is too far? Kitty breathes out in frustration. 

“Pem, you’ve done enough.” Mary finds her voice.  

Emily shoots her a look. “It will never be enough. Not until the vote is ours.” 

“Nobody’s telling you to stop altogether. But you need some time to recover.” Mary’s warming to it now. 

Kitty nods in agreement. Militancy may unite them, but she’s not going to encourage her friend’s recklessness. Not this time, at least. The Cause is devouring Emily. Since Holloway, they can all see how her spine torments her. How she walks, hunched, like a woman twice her age. 

“I am as well as I need to be, Mary.” 

“They stopped paying you ages ago, Pem. They cut you off. They don’t listen to us. Why persist?”  

Kitty wonders who is meant by ‘us’.  

“You know I’m not doing it for the Pankhursts anymore,” comes Emily’s curt reply. 

“Neither am I. But who do you think will wade in afterwards? If you trust us, then you need to tell us what’s going on. Maybe we can help.” 

“I don’t think you can. Not this time, Mary. I’m sorry.” 

Kitty has been watching the exchange, eyes darting back and forth. But now she chooses her words carefully: “By all means, Pem, make a scene tomorrow. But we worry about you. We need you.” They need her alive.

A butter knife would be useless at cutting the atmosphere, it hangs so thickly. The women shift in their seats. A waitress comes to collect their empty teacups. Kitty and Mary look at Emily. Emily looks at nothing in particular. 

“I do not shrink from sacrifice,” Emily eventually replies. Her hands are in her lap now, wringing a handkerchief to death. 

Kitty can’t keep herself from thinking the word. Suicide. The mortal sin. A crime. None of them give a fig for legality, but this is something else entirely. Her heart clenches. Could she do it? Kitty has an image of Emily throwing herself from the grandstand, then one of a galloping horse. She squeezes her eyes shut. She doesn’t know if Emily could do it, and that scares her most of all. Not really knowing if she knows her friend.

Emily retreats back inside herself. She won’t broach the subject again. Kitty makes a few failed attempts at drawing her out. As usual, she has spoken so well yet said very little. Mary has her elbows on the table and is rubbing her temples.

 Talk slowly turns to innocent subjects, to the festival around them; they bury their misgivings under chit-chat. The Actresses’ Franchise League’s performance, the verdant setting. Kitty has been meaning to visit the haberdashery all day. Sweat has been pooling under her collar. She needs a new summer frock, but she hasn’t had work- paid work, not suffrage plays- in months. Earlier that day, Emily and Mary had laid a wreath in front of the statue of Joan of Arc. Emily brightens up at the memory, and proudly recants the words carved into its base: “Fight on, and God will give victory.”  

Eventually, Kitty makes her excuses and says her farewells. Mary pays for their tea. She used to be a schoolteacher, until the headmaster found out about her after-school activities. Luckily, her husband didn’t cast her out. Kitty wonders how they’re getting by. Her own savings are dwindling, and Emily’s threadbare dresses also tell a story.  

Mary excuses herself to go to the washroom. Kitty is passing Emily’s chair when she reaches out and grabs Kitty’s wrist. Emily presses a small, green purse into her friend’s palm. 

“For munitions,” Emily hisses. 

“Pem! What on ear-” 

“Take it.” 

“Where did you get this? Keep it!” What on earth is she up to? 

Take it.” She’s clearly not in the mood for dissent.  

Kitty relents and tucks the purse into her dress pockets just as Mary reappears, threading around the crowded tables. 

On her way out, Kitty almost walks past the haberdashery, but then a white silk scarf catches her eye. Someone has embroidered it with a border of delicate violets and Votes for Women. It costs more than she used to earn in a week, back when mainstream theatres did not baulk at employing her. Careful not to look into the little green purse, she reaches for her own, opens it, and finds a few pennies for some plain fabric she can transform. She’s tired of hoping they’ll make her a paid campaigner. Her mind turns to the women who stand at Whitechapel corners, barefoot and desperate.  

She pushes her way through the crowd. The Empress rooms have been transformed into a summer garden, with borders of pergolas and rambling pink roses. The scent is cloying. Noise echoes around the high-ceilinged hall, and she’s starting to feel dizzy. She impatiently passes stalls selling buttons, jewellery, hats, stationery, sweets, books, tea sets, even board games. There is nothing these women’s hands cannot shape.  

A minute later, she bursts out onto the street. The early summer sunshine feels dazzlingly bright. Kitty breathes deeply. For a woman who spends so much of her time locked in crowds, she wishes she minded it less.  

She touches the statue of Joan of Arc as she passes, for luck. God save the women with nothing to lose. 

Categories
Historical Fiction Prose

An Opening: Ferry

Autumn 1886 

Get thee out of Thy country, and from Thy kinship and from Thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show Thee  

Genesis 12:1 

Katherina is standing at the bow of a ship. A ferry. Eine Fähre. It’s evening, and the sun is inching towards the horizon, bleeding crimson. The air is salty and still. She turns her head. Behind her, yellow fades to indigo as a thin crescent moon appears. The stars shine sharp and cold over the continent, but Germany is behind her now. That new country, knitted together by willpower alone. She’s leaving everything. Tante Lisette, Tante Mariechen, Onkel Heinrich, her school-friends and the ruins on the hill behind her grandfather’s house. Can she still call it her country, if she never goes back? 

Around her, a few passengers take quiet evening strolls along the deck. She can hear smatterings of German mixed in with the strange new tongue she’ll have to learn. To her, English sounds indistinct, like someone talking around a boiled sweet. 

She turns back to look out to sea. West, towards her new home. Tomorrow, they’ll be landing in Harwich. For now, all she can see is the sea stretching for miles all around, mirroring the sunset. It’s eerily calm. She tries to picture Tante Dora in her head, but it’s been years since they’ve laid eyes on each other, years since Dora moved to London. Will she even recognise me? Katherina thinks. It’s the same every time she ends up on another relative’s doorstep. Katherina is that you? If you carry on like this, you’ll be too tall to marry!  

Her hand slides into the pocket of her coat and clutches at the crumpled paper covered in her uncle’s scrawl. She’s been taking it out, smoothing it, studying the words for days; the paper is limp and worn from so much folding and unfolding. Katherina could recite the address, directions and names backwards by now. But she’s unsure how to say the English words. London Liverpool Street. It has a strange rhythm. Lon-don Liver-pool Street. The ‘r’ is all wrong, too soft and slurring. She practiced with Onkel Heinrich, but she’s convinced she’ll never get it right.  

A breeze quickens and pulls at the strands of hair escaping from her hat. She stands with her back straight in her first long dress. She is travelling alone; she even has her own cabin. Her uncle has organised everything. 

Get off the ferry at Harwich and find the train station. It should be down the main road towards the centre of town and off to the right. If you get lost, ask someone to help. It’s not unusual to find someone who speaks German in a port town. If you can’t find anyone who speaks German, they can point it out to you. Once you’re there, take the train to London Liverpool Street. Get off at the last stop. Aunt Dora will meet you there. She’ll take you to her home in Epp- 

“Guten Abend, Fräulein.” Good evening, miss. 

Katherina jumps, her hands gripping the railings. A woman is standing next to her, staring out to sea. She is small and slight and elegantly dressed in wine-coloured brocade with a large bustle. The woman’s German has a distinct accent. English, maybe, but Katherina’s not sure. The woman smiles at Katherina over her high-necked collar. Her hands are tucked into a fur muff. 

“Guten Abend,” Katherina’s greeting comes out as an embarrassing croak. She coughs to clear her throat.  

“Aren’t you afraid?” The woman continues. 

“Entschuldigung?” says Katherina. Excuse me?  

“I said, aren’t you afraid?” The woman repeats. Katherina understood her the first time, she just hadn’t a clue what to say. She gathers herself. 

“No. Should I be?”  

“You are travelling alone, aren’t you?”  

Katherina wonders if the woman has been watching her. A hot trickle of anxiety starts to pool in her gut. She decides there’s no point in lying. The ship is neither large nor full. 

“Yes, I am.” 

“I would be afraid.” The woman says, frowning. 

“I’m not sure I follow. And we haven’t been introduced.” Katherina is starting to feel stupid, and she hates feeling stupid. 

“I’m sorry, my dear. My name is Mrs Brightwell. But you can call me Ilse. A pleasure to meet you.” Ilse inclines her head. Her eyes are a deep brown, like the coffee her father used to sip in the mornings. It contrasts with the blonde hair sticking out from underneath her elaborate, feathered hat. The knots and braids are starting to pull loose ever so slightly.  

Katherina has no idea what to do now, doesn’t know if Ilse wants to be greeted as an equal, or be deferred to. Her clothes hint at wealth. Should she curtsey like a girl? Should she offer her a hand? Incline the head, or bow? To get it wrong could be an affront, but so could doing nothing. It’s already too late, she thinks. 

Ilse seems to sense her discomfort, and briefly puts a hand on her arm. It’s warm under her soft leather gloves. She looks to be in her mid-twenties, so she’s not old, just a good decade older than Katherina. 

“Ilse’s a German name.” Katherina blurts out, then grimaces. But if Ilse is bothered by Katherina’s bald observation, she doesn’t show it. She only lets out a short peal of laughter that carries over the quiet deck and the sea. 

“Indeed it is. My mother was German. She fought to name me. She said it wasn’t fair if my father got both names, and I suppose she was right.”  

Ilse pauses for a while, seemingly lost in a memory. 

Katherina shifts from foot to foot. How to continue the conversation? “And your surname?” the question is out of her mouth before she can shut it. Her father always told her to speak less and think more, especially around strangers. But her father is far away now, and this woman has a presence. The warm kind of presence that makes you say things. 

“My husband’s. I haven’t been Mrs James Brightwell for long.” 

“Congratulations. Did you move to England recently?” 

“No. I grew up in London, where my father grew up. So, I’m not quite one or the other. My mother’s family are always imitating my accent.” Her face darkens for a moment, like clouds over the sea. “Actually, I’ve just been visiting them in Kiel. With James,” she adds. 

Katherina is a little surprised at how Ilse seems to take everything in her stride. From the scant details she’s picked up about the English, they’re supposed to be reserved. But then again, having barely spoken to anyone outside her own family, she’s out of her depth. Finally, she remembers her manners.  

“I’m Katherina. Katherina Schäfer.”  

Ilse smiles. She has pretty white teeth. “You might want to re-think being Katherina. Or are you content with it being pronounced incorrectly from now until eternity? By the people over there, I mean.” Ilse tilts her head towards the West, towards the sunset. “Katherina,” Ilse says with an exaggerated English air, drawing out the th. There’s a mischievous twinkle in her eye. 

Katherina grins. She turns away slightly, thinking. Ilse reminds her of happier times long ago, times she spent with Tante Lisette amongst her mother’s friends, talking and singing songs. They would let her try on perfume and tell her stories about her mother before her lungs gave up. Until her father came to take her back. She remembers the flash of sorrow in Tante Lisette’s eyes. Then, home was quiet again. Fraught. 

A nickname. It’s something she’s never considered before. Maybe she’s right, Katherina thinks. A new beginning. 

“I’m only speaking from experience.” Ilse tips her head conspiratorially. “Half of my receipts still have Lisa on them. Part of me curses my mother for not calling me Jane, God rest her soul.” 

A comfortable silence settles between them. Katherina is curious about her new friend’s mother. She wants to tell her that she lost hers, too. That she can hardly remember her mother, not even if she closes her eyes really tight and thinks as hard as she can. But something is holding her back. She hasn’t breathed a word of it for years, not to anyone.  

Ilse looks at her sideways. Part of Katherina wonders if she’s reading her thoughts. Katherina shakes her head. No, that’s stupid. 

“Katherina,” Ilse turns to her now and looks her straight in the eyes again, “be careful. If I’ve noticed you’re travelling alone, so have others.” Ilse darts a look around the deck. Kitty follows her gaze. A few metres to their right, an old man coughs into a dirty napkin. A seagull is perched on top of one of the stacks, squawking. The sky has now faded to a dusky pink.  

“Lock your cabin to-night.” Ilse squeezes her arm. 

“Why?” Katherina asks, frowning. Her mind has been too caught up in other things to give the matter any thought. But Ilse has jolted a vague memory of her uncle telling her something similar. 

Ilse casts her eyes to Heaven and crosses herself and mutters an English prayer under her breath before replying. 

“Have you ever travelled before?” 

Katherina hesitates before replying. She knows that Ilse must look at her and see a child.

“No, I haven’t.”

“I thought as much. And alone at that. Trust me. Don’t talk to any men, lock your cabin to-night, and you’ll be fine.” She smiles again, this time reassuringly. “Which cabin are you in?” 

I’ve already told this woman so much, thinks Katherina. There’s no hiding on this ship, either. She takes a breath. 

“Number four.” 

Ilse smiles. “You’re only two doors down from me, then. I’m in number two. If there’s any trouble, anything at all worrying you, come and knock for me. Any time.” 

All Katherina can manage is a tentative nod. 

“So, I really must be off.” Ilse has turned brisk and smooths out her skirts. “James must be wondering where I am by now. I told him I was only going for a breath of air. He gets terribly sea-sick, you know. Awful company.” Katherina could swear Ilse winks before she walks back down the deck, skirts swinging behind her. After Ilse leaves, Katherina feels strangely lost. The breeze is pulling at her and the air now has a cold edge. It’s September, but the nights are already drawing in. She runs through the conversation in her head, once, twice over. Is she missing something? Katherina doesn’t know why she should be afraid. Strangers had only ever been kind to her. The man stamping her papers had given her a strange look and asked her some questions, but that could hardly be considered an emergency. 

Eventually, Katherina returns to her cabin and undresses, careful to lock the door. She hangs up her coat and hat. In her loose white nightgown, she sits on her bunk in front of the tiny mirror and starts to pull out her hairpins, then brushes through her hair. The same as her mother’s. Katherina remembers it tickling her face as she put her to bed at night. The soft murmur of her voice. 

 She stares at her reflection. Long nose, full lips, tired eyes. At some point, someone must’ve come in to leave a small pitcher of water in the basin below the mirror. It’s gone stone cold, but she pours some out and splashes her face with it regardless. 

Through her porthole, she can see that it’s pitch-black outside. She can hear the gentle creaking and swaying of the ship. Footsteps pass above her and, in the corridor, doors open and shut. The small cohort of passengers are settling themselves in for the night. She’s pleased she hasn’t gotten sea-sick like she’d feared. She opens the drawer in her narrow bedside cabinet. In it, there’s two Bibles: one written in what looks like Danish, and one in English.  

Katherina picks up the English one, leafing through the pages. They’re thin, yellow, and well-thumbed. She wonders how many other passengers have opened this book and looked for guidance. The church in Witten had been a safe haven for her, and her grandmother was devout in the best sense of the word, but Katherina doesn’t often pray.  

If she concentrates really hard, she can guess at one word in ten. After a few minutes, she gives up and lays back on the bed. A wave of fatigue blurs her eyes and a pang of homesickness twists her stomach. What is she doing here? Thoughts of Onkel Heinrich flood her mind. The smell of his pipe tobacco clinging to his scratchy tweed as he hugged her. His kind, crinkly eyes as he waved goodbye to her in Deutz. Don’t worry, my child. It’s for the best. Katherina had cried until her head hurt, but knew it was the truth. Grandfather wouldn’t provide for her. Father had kept showing up on Heinrich’s doorstep, hurling abuse and threatening to pull her back by the hair if they didn’t give her willingly. 

She lays awake, staring at the ceiling, for what feels like hours. Time moves strangely at night. Every now and again, she can hear a passenger coughing or turning over in their bunk. The walls are thin.  

Her last thoughts before finally falling asleep are of seagulls, pearly white teeth, and Onkel Heinrich, dressed as Moses, parting the Red Sea. 

Categories
Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Elizabeth Chadwick’s ‘Templar Silks’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A punchy story of sin and redemption.

Templar Silks (William Marshal #6)

Elizabeth Chadwick is a prodigious historical fiction author. She has dozens of books to her name, yet this was the first one of her which I read. It definitely didn’t disappoint, and I would go back for more, but it’s nothing groundbreaking either. It’s a good story told well, and based on sound research. Chadwick hit her stride when it comes to novels possibly even decades ago, so I’m not surprised that the storyline and character arcs are tight if not a touch formulaic.

I’m not sure why I’d never read something by Chadwick before. Possibly it’s because my historical fiction consumption tends to focus on later centuries- Tudor, Victorian. I have nothing against the medieval age but it does tend to be told as epic stories of knights and damsels, which is sort of the case here, but Templar Silks is also not completely typical of the genre. I studied the medieval age a lot at university, so I guess moving on to devouring Tudor fiction has been my way of rebelling since graduation.

I bought the book online, so I first noticed the reviews on the cover when I was about to open it up and start reading. They were certainly disconcerting. I saw the Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. I swallowed, my mouth went dry. Oh dear, I thought to myself, what kind of lens is this story going to be through? Then I read the blurb and realised it was about the Crusading era, and one knight’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. My hands were sweaty and my stomach twisted. I thought I knew why it had gotten such glowing reviews from such demagogic trash newspapers. Was this going to be another story of evil Saracens and turbaned foreigners with dark skin, glinting black eyes and scimitars razing villages of ‘innocent’ European settlers to the ground and eventually being cut down by the ‘worthy’ Crusader knights? Were beautiful blonde princesses going to be stolen away by the swarthy Moslems? Was it going to completely ignore the fact that people had been living in the Middle East for thousands of years before the Europeans rocked up and decided it was theirs?

Needless to say, I was rather anxious as I turned the first few pages. Fortunately, Chadwick does realise that it’s all much more nuanced than that. The book focuses much more on internal conflicts inside the court of Jerusalem, with different warring factions vying for supremacy in the face of a dying king. King Baldwin is slowly succumbing to leprosy in his early twenties. He is level-headed, wise and extremely intelligent, but he cannot help the fact that his body is failing and literally falling apart. The heir to the throne is six years old. Saladin, the bane of the crusader state, is lurking on the sidelines, really to take advantage of Jerusalem’s weakness. Guy de Lusignan, arsehole extraordinaire, is little six-year-old Baldwin’s stepfather and assumes he will be taking over the reins when King Baldwin dies. Leprosy Baldwin would do anything to stop that from happening. The Patriarch Heraclius is playing his own mysterious games, seemingly sitting on the fence and biding his time with his mistress, Paschia de Riveri. Most of the other princes and lords around Jerusalem would rather eat cold vomit than follow Guy de Lusignan. The city is on a knife-edge, it’s a tinder box waiting to explode.

And in walks William Marshal, whom history calls ‘the greatest knight’. His master, the Young King Henry, has died of dysentery, and William promises to take his cloak to Jerusalem and lay it on the altar at the Holy Sepulchre to make amends for their sins- the greatest of which was stealing from a Holy Shrine to the Virgin Mary to pay their mercenaries. Marshal arrives at court and has to play the game, which he accomplishes rather well until he falls into the arms of the mysterious Paschia…

I think Marshal’s character is written brilliantly. As ‘the greatest knight’, it would be extremely easy to make this character one-dimensional, to make him a bland, wholly morally good chivalric hero who saves the city- a Jon Snow-esque trope. However, Chadwick gives him depth and vibrancy. He sins, he makes mistakes, and he proves himself to be an astute political player as well as an outstanding warrior. Knights had to know how to do both – they had to manoeuvre for patronage and favours to survive. It was a delight to read in most places, and, despite it being around 500 pages long, I finished it in a few days. It’s a light read but still maintains beautiful description throughout. Chadwick is a great writer, but her prose is not as dense, complex or loaded as other writers such as Mantel. But that’s absolutely fine. Chadwick is great at world-building, giving us enough detail without the prose becoming bloated. Her development of the brotherhood between William and Ancel is one of the most touching aspects of the book.

So why four stars instead of five? I’m not sure. It was a great book. But it’s not Mantel. The baddies were obvious from the get-go. The affair was also obvious. Nothing came at me like a ton of bricks.

Categories
Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Rebecca Stott’s ‘Ghostwalk’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A creepy, lyrical slow-burner that blends several genres: historical fiction and supernatural thriller.

Ghostwalk: Amazon.co.uk: Stott, Rebecca: 9780753823576: Books

Synopsis

A woman, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is found dead by her son Cameron Brown. She’s floating face-down in the river next to her Cambridge home, The Studio, clutching a glass prism. It’s ruled an accident, but the truth is far more complicated than it first appears.

Lydia Brooke, an author, is Elizabeth’s friend and Cameron Brown’s ex-lover. Cameron hires her to finish Elizabeth’s manuscript on Newton’s alchemical research. Lydia moves into The Studio and things start to get decidedly creepy once she starts poking around in the history of Isaac Newton’s obsessions.

There’s also a parallel storyline. A radical animal rights organisation (NABED) is busy threatening both Cameron and Lydia by association. Cameron is a neuroscientist whose laboratory regularly test on animals. Lydia and Cameron have been involved in an on/off adulterous relationship for years. Dead animals start turning up, and workers at the laboratory are attacked.

Highlights

Stott’s writing is beautiful. This is a brilliantly researched book with more layers than a matriushka doll. The book contains several extracts from Elizabeth’s manuscript, and I certainly found the exploration of Isaac Newton’s true-to-life involvement with alchemy fascinating.

The supernatural side of the book was extremely well-written. I love horror, I love creepy, so books with supernatural elements really appeal to me. Lydia begins to feel uncomfortable living in Elizabeth’s home, and the light start to play tricks on her. Manuscript sections start to appear and disappear. A dead can turns up on the doorstep.

The thriller side of the book is compelling, until the last few chapters. This is not a new book, it was released in 2007, and you can definitely feel the influence of Dan Brown’s the Da Vinci code. It contains historical mysteries and secrets, with clever people investigating them. It contains shadowy organisations with ulterior motives. Some of the main characters turn out to be the exact opposite of what they seem. Some doors are slammed in their face, other doors open. Despite the controversy, I absolutely loved reading the Da Vinci code, so this connection really didn’t bother me.

Stott’s writing is also very cerebral and philosophical in places. She goes to great lengths to paint a picture with words, and draws on a huge variety of sources and influences. There are references to a vast array of historical figures and authors, and Brooke and Brown’s snappy conversations are extremely interesting if you’re a nerd like me.

Lowlights

The plot twist was very predictable and also a bit too much of a stretch for me. I won’t ruin it for you, but it did ruin the last few chapters or so. Once I knew the twist, I didn’t really want to read past it, because the book already felt finished.

Categories
Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Rebecca Stott’s ‘The Coral Thief’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rebecca is my tutor for the historical fiction module, so I’m glad I can be largely positive about this.

The Coral Thief: Amazon.co.uk: Stott, Rebecca: 9780753827109: Books

I got this book months ago but I’ve finally just had the chance to read something purely for pleasure: that means in English, a novel, and nothing to do with my modules. Who knew that studying literature and translation would mean that I barely get the chance to read for myself? Oh yeah, I did know that.

Synopsis

Daniel Connor is an anatomy and medicine student at Edinburgh University. He is sent by his tutor to post-revolutionary France, where Napoleon has fallen and the King has been returned to the throne. He starts a job under Professor Cuvier at the world-famous Jardin des Plantes, categorising species.

Upon arriving on the mail coach, Daniel realises the beautiful woman he met the night before has stolen his corals, manuscript and bones which were the references and gifts needed to start his job at the Jardin. He drifts around Paris with his newfound Scottish friend and fellow student Fin, unable to start work, and a bit lost.

But the mysterious woman hasn’t disappeared completely. This becomes a thriller as well as a historical novel, with spies, jewel heists and rings of thieves in hiding.

Highlights

Time and place were beautifully executed. early 19th-century Paris felt alive in my mind. I really enjoyed the first part of the book – the month in which Daniel gets drunk and behaves like most other twenty-year-old students in Paris with nothing much to do. Absinthe, gambling, phantasmagoria. Stott did such a good job of setting it’s making me want to go back and edit my own fiction, which is how it should be.

It’s an incredibly interesting point in time to set a novel. Twenty years after the Revolution, just after Napoleon has been defeated after escaping from prison once more. Napoleon is on his way to the tiny rock which will be his ‘prison’ (a rather beautiful tropical island prison) for the rest of his life: Saint Helena. The ethos of the Revolution is crumbling all around them. No more liberté, egalité, fraternité, but no more Terror either. The lions are being pulled from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and given back to Rome. Everywhere, the European powers are descending on Paris and taking back what had been stolen from them: including the beautiful collection of fossils, corals and bones at the Jardin des Plantes.

Time was evoked beautifully, naturally and not too often. Paris- a seething metropolis where nobody is as they seems – seemed almost a third main character in the novel.

Lowlights

So why four starts instead of five? The plot felt a little weak at times. Case in point: the climax of the novel, a great jewel heist. The characters repeat time and time again how impossible it is to break into the Jardin’s Museum, how well-locked, how well-protected everything is. I was curious how they were going to figure out a way in. And in the end, I never found out. The other characters just kind of abseil from somewhere in the roof just like any first, tacky mental image you get when I say the words ‘Jewel Heist’. We also never really found out how Lucienne, the mysterious woman, manages to fake her own death to get away from Paris.

Jagot, the Parisian police-chief-cum-spymaster, really wants the diamond. This felt kind of cheap for a baddie, I thought there would be some deeper motivations at play than just wanting a diamond. Blackmail, extortion? Deep-seated lusts? No, dude wants to get rich. Also, he lets Daniel and Lucienne run around the city for months, although Lucienne is supposedly in hiding. Hmmm.

And now we come to character. Daniel doesn’t warrant being the ‘I’-narrator. He’s passive, dull, and I honestly couldn’t give you many adjectives to describe his character after a whole book. Which is a bit sad, because ‘I’-narrators give you the most insight into their personality. Naive? Biddable? Maybe these two. At times, he’s infuriatingly passive, and for someone who apparently adores botany and biology, he forgets about it all pretty quick. His mental monologues on corals, fossils and bones in the first half of the book don’t fit with his treatment of his job in the second half of the book- as just going through the motions until he can swan around Paris with his older girlfriend and drink absinthe after dark.

Whereas Daniel is flat and underdeveloped, Lucienne seems to have more character facets than seems plausible. She is a fallen aristocrat during the Revolution, whose life was saved in prison because another woman stepped up and was executed in her name (why? No idea). She dresses as a man half of the time, she is a thief, a coral enthusiast, a philosopher. Nobody seems to care that she is a woman alone, with no husband, no real home, no honest income. It felt too modern. Nobody struggles with that. She didn’t seem to have struggled being a fallen aristocratic female cross-dresser who began a sparkling career in thievery.

Categories
Book Reviews Prose

Book Review: James Wood’s ‘How Fiction Works’

Only just starting to date around the edges, this is an invaluable introduction to literature and the crafting of fiction.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
How Fiction Works: Amazon.co.uk: Wood, James: 9781845950934: Books

Overview

I hadn’t had much contact with literary theory until this year. I’d studied German and History, and although I’d done a couple of literature modules in German, I’d never grappled with the grand timelines of literary history, from the birth of the novel to realism to modernism to postmodernism and beyond. I bought this book to help me better understand the underpinnings of my MA Literary Translation course, and it was definitely a good idea. It was concise, easy-to-read, and full of interesting references to works I usually hadn’t read- which gave me loads of ideas for my summer reading list (when I’ll finally have the freedom to pick up a novel for myself and read it for my own goddamn pleasure).

Highlights

The sections are rather erratic and staccato – short sections of usually no more than a couple of pages and sometimes as small as a single line. This didn’t bother me, because I have a short attention span and a scatterbrained reading style anyway. I’m usually thinking of exactly 6 other things whilst reading, so the easily-digestible chunks were a relief. Nothing makes me groan more than opening a book and seeing that the chapters are 120 pages long, or that, God forbid, there are no chapters at all.

This book also gave me an insight into the jargon my MA Prose coursemates are often throwing around, as well as a good grounding knowledge of the first great novelists (Flaubert, Balzac). It also helped me to more understand the modernist literary mindset, and how it contrasts with postmodernism.

Lowlights

I have a few criticisms, which basically boil down to:

1- this book is a product of its time and American meta-anxiety during the ‘War on Terror’.

2- the author really could have tried harder to include some more female novelists (the only two which get any kind of in-depth mention are, of course, Austen and Woolf).

and 3-(this is my PET PEEVE) the author repeatedly quotes translated fiction without mentioning the translator or the fact that the fiction is in fact translated, as is the case with all the numerous French novelists he references. He references their work as if it were their original, unadulterated words, thus erasing the translator and their invaluable contributions to making international authors accessible to monolingual Anglophone audiences. Those are not Flaubert’s words. They are an impression of Flaubert’s words via another writer. You are a leading literary critic. Please do better.