A lot has been written recently about the way in which serial killers are treated like macabre geniuses, while the victims of their crimes are forgotten.
The most famous of these is undoubtedly Jack the Ripper, who having evaded capture has become something of a modern myth, and the Jack the Ripper folklore has spawned a micro-economy which trades on the death of his victims for profit; tours of the Whitechapel scenes of the murders, numerous films and television adaptations, even souvenirs with t-shirts and mugs displaying his victims corpses as if they were artworks created by a master craftsmen, not women who lived and breathed.
In The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, Hallie Rubenhold seeks to go some way towards reclaiming the names of his victims, exploring their histories to restore their identities and humanity. It makes it clear that it doesn’t matter who Jack the Ripper was now, what matters were the complex and varied lives that he snatched. One by one she goes explores the lives of the canonical five victims; Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, from their births to their deaths, revealing far more complex lives than any film or documentary purporting to explore the history of Jack the Ripper has ever revealed.
Rubenhold’s The Five is as fascinating as it is heart-breaking, showing the various factors that brought the women to be living such precarious existences in Whitechapel, and reminding the reader just how precarious life could be in the Victorian era, where an extra mouth to feed could tip a family into poverty, or the loss of a male relative could leave a family of women incredibly vulnerable. Where if you were born into poverty, you had little to no hope of escaping, and even if you were born into the middle classes, one mistake or one small upset would be enough to derail your life.
The Five not only returns a sense of the victims as real people but gives a clear picture of what life was like for women and the poor in the era. I found it a really moving read, and although I enjoy a crime novel as much as anyone else, thought it was an important counter voice to the sensationalism of violence against women for entertainment.
I’ve always had a bit of a thing about the Tudor dynasty, and Catherine Parr as the surviving wife of Henry VIII always fascinated me, how do you follow up marrying one of the greatest tyrants in history? Falling in love with and marrying an equally questionable man (see the rumours around Thomas Seymour’s relationship with his stepdaughter on Katherine Parr’s watch) before dying shortly after giving birth to your sole child. Tragic. And what happened to Mary Seymour, the baby who survived? She disappears from history. And that’s where Nicola Cornick’s latest novel The Phantom Tree comes in.
“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”
Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.
The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.
But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…
Part timeslip, part romance, part mystery, part ghost story The Phantom Tree follows the dual narrative of Mary Seymour in Tudor England, and Alison Bannister in (mostly) modern England. Alison, trapped in the 21st century, desperately searches for clues left as to the whereabouts of her lost son by her sometime enemy, Mary, who in turn struggles to carve a life for herself in a land where her mysterious visions have lead to accusations of witchcraft while still making time to fall recklessly in “love”.
I appreciate that this sounds like a jumble sale of genres, but for me it worked. Especially the witchcraft element of the story and the way that this played out with the mysterious Darrell, though I have to admit a part of me found the story of the lost child really challenging. When the novel had finished, I thought that it was really nicely handled, but I think that this might be a challenging read for anyone who has been separated from a baby.
The feminist slant on life in Tudor England was very welcome, and I thought that the character progression of Alison throughout the novel was really well handled. I wasn’t wholly sold on Mary’s transition from a wise imp of a child to a would be Juliet surrendering much of her integrity to the first good-looking man who pays attention to her, but hey, we all did silly things as teenagers and the story had gained enough momentum to carry me through- though I would have liked to see more time and attention giving to the riddle of Alison’s sewing box.
Something that I found really interesting was the use of historical and fictional characters, in as much as I wondered why the author had decided to create a fictional version of the historical Wild William Darrell in Will Fenner. I assume it was because of the misdeeds of the characters associated with the family in the book- one of which was clearly forewarned in the earlier part of the novel and one of which really took me by surprise- and concerns about how their descendants might react to the artistic license taken with the story, or perhaps out of respect to the memory of the individuals in question. Either way, very interesting, and I’d love to pick the authors brains about it.
In summary, it’s an interesting read, and another instance of Nicola Cornick putting her own spin on history to create an enjoyable yarn. It would make a great summer read…summer, it is coming.
I’ve written this post as a part of Midas’ The Phantom Tree Blog Tour. Please visit some of the other blogs involved to see what their reviewers thought.
Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist is one of those widely acclaimed debut novels that seems to follow you around, even before you’ve read it you see the cover in bus stops, catch the title in magazines and catch the name standing out in strangers conversations. But is there anything more to the hype than a clever marketing campaign?
At first glance, the story has all the elements of a Gothic pastiche: a young bride turns up at her new husband’s house and finds herself at the mercy of his cold, maiden sister with a servant who openly treats her in a disrespectful way. Alone and isolated (in a room bedecked with grizzly artwork depicting meat and game birds no less), she is insulted when her husband buys her a child’s dollhouse to occupy her but soon finds that there is more to this than meets the eye. In itself, not massively compelling.
To reduce the story to this rough plot overview though, would be to do the novel and the author a massive disservice. I think that part of Jessie Burton’s talent is that she sets up the reader’s expectations for a particular kind of plot then through subtle misdirection surprises the reader with the course of events that follows, keeping you only half a step ahead of Nella as she encounters the wonders and horrors of her new life in Amsterdam and making her one of the most credible naïve brides in literature.
The history of 17th century Amsterdam been well researched and certainly well rendered, and the setting is a masterstroke for anyone who thinks of Amsterdam as a shorthand for liberalism and tolerance. While the miniaturist remains shadowy, the city comes to the fore as a contradictory, cruelly capricious character – the home to a society simultaneously obsessed with trade and piety, where neighbour watches neighbour to exert a pervasive social control, a fearful puppet master in its own right.
Though the novel isn’t perfect, it is very, very good and like all good novels it leaves you with questions. Why does the miniaturist come to the church in the first chapter? Why did they want to leave the miniature-miniature there? And most of all, what has compelled such an astute student of human behaviour to hold a mirror up to their subjects lives when the emotional repercussions of their art seem to shake them too?
Last night I went to see the film adaptation of Markus Zusak’sThe Book Thief and I loved it. Granted it took me about an hour to stop crying, but I really liked it and was impressed at how true to the book it remained. I’m usually the first person to cry foul if someone has messed around with a book I liked, and despite one major niggle I thought it was a fairly faithful adaptation. My thoughts below, but be warned, there are spoilers.
A huge number of film critics have slammed The Book Thief movie, criticising what is seen as mawkish sentimentalism, an insufficiently harrowing representation of the horrors of World War 2, using Death personified as a narrator and criticising the fact that the cast speak with German accents in a mixture of English with the odd bit of German thrown in. To all of which I say, okay, but did you read the book? The New Yorker Review went as far as to cast doubt on the plausability of the street being bombed… to which I refer you to history books about the allied bombings of Stuttgart. Anyone who wishes to try to reduce WW2 to all Germans bad all Allies good may find their efforts hampered by some of the work of bomber command but I leave that up to GCSE History teachers to explain.
It may be fair enough to criticise the film as being Oscar bait, but honestly, considering that it is an adaptation of what is ultimately a book for younger teenagers which found success as a cross over novel, exactly how harrowing do you think it’s appropriate to be? There were some fairly violent scenes depicting Kristallnacht with hauntingly beautiful music sung by a Hitler Youth choir, hauntingly beautiful until you read the translation of the lyrics and realise that it’s another example of Nazi propaganda designed to indoctrinate very young children into striving for the Aryan state from a very young age. I actually found it incredibly effective at looking at the war from a child’s perspective. Liesel (played brilliantly by Sophie Nélisse) is aware that people who are members of groups that Hitler disapproves of disappear. Her communist parents have disappeared one by one, and though she isn’t aware of the horrors of the concentration camps, she loves her friend Max and fears for what has become of him. I thought the scene where a group of Jewish men were being marched through the town and Liesel runs among them looking for Max was actually more convincing in the film than in the book. In the book, she finds Max and they are both beaten. You can imagine that worse might have happened to Max if this really happens. In the film, she doesn’t find Max in the crowd, every man she sees could be him, and she runs through them promising that she will not forget until she is beaten by a Nazi officer. There are critics who have poured scorn on the moderate actions such as these that individual characters take to code that they are “good Germans”, but the film very clearly demonstrates the real world consequences that actions like these would have had at the time- a family on the verge of poverty because the father refuses to become a member of the Nazi party, conscription to the army if you showed sympathy towards the plight of a neighbour considered “undesirable”, the risk that you yourself will be considered undesirable and taken away. It’s easy to say that the characters should have done more, but I wonder if many who watch the film will think the same as I did- would I be brave enough to do that? Do I oppose injustice in my far safer world?
As I mentioned earlier, there is a change from the book that irritated me. When the bombs drop on Himmel Street in the book, Rudy is killed in his sleep and Death’s description of collecting his soul is heartbreaking:
He lay in bed with one of his sisters. She must have kicked him or muscled her way into the majority of the bed space because he was on the very edge with his arm around her. The boy slept. His candlelit hair ignited the bed, and I picked both him and Bettina up with their souls still in the blanket. If nothing else, they died fast and they were warm. The boy from the plane, I thought. The one with the teddy bear. Where was Rudy’s comfort? Where was someone to alleviate this robbery of his life? Who was there to soothe him as life’s rug was snatched from under his sleeping feet.
There was only me.
And I am not too great at that sort of comforting thing, especially when my hands are cold and the bed is warm. I carried him softly through the broken street, with one salty eye and a heavy, deathly heart. With him, I tried a little harder. I watched the contents of his soul for a moment and saw a black-painted boy calling the name of Jesse Owens as he ran through imaginary tape. I saw him hip-deep in some icy water, chasing a book, and I saw a boy lying in bed, imagining how a kiss would taste from his glorious next-door neighbour. He did something to me, that boy. Every time. It’s only his detriment. He steps on my heart. He makes me cry.
The Book Thief- Markus Zusak
In the film adaptation he stays alive long enough to half tell Liesel he loves her before dying in front of her. That annoyed me because it felt like a “film moment”, a betrayal of the book for no real narrative reason. It was a crude attempt to tug the heartstrings and the film would have been better without it. It was like someone had spent a bit too long in the fan fiction forums.
In spite of that, I really think it was a good adaptation of The Book Thief. If you enjoyed the book, I think there’s a very good chance that you will like the film, though it’s not as good (these things rarely are) it’s by far one of the better film to book adaptations I’ve seen and the younger cast member are enchanting.
“God forbid that I should ever suffer the shame of publishing a book for money, or of having one of my family so demean themselves. How can one tell who might read it? No worthy book has ever been written for gain, I think.”
An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
Set in 1663, twelve years after the end of the English Civil War, An Instance of The Fingerpost by Iain Pearsis a bitingly clever murder mystery set in the streets and colleges of restoration Oxford. Narrated by four narrators, the reader is left to piece together the true course of events from highly unreliable narratives before discovering “the truth” in a final narrative which leaves you, despite your better judgement, unable to question the credibility of the self-proclaimed “objective” narrator.
This is simultaneously the most intelligent and most enjoyable novel that I’ve read in a very long time. It’s clearly been immaculately researched, but at no point do you feel as though you’re having a lecture on life in post-Civil War Oxford. What particularly impressed me was the way that historical characters are seamlessly woven with fictional players (in reality, most of the characters are historical characters, though the events of the novel are fictional) and familiar figures from history like John Locke and Robert Boyle drift in and out of the novel as minor players, their genius and personalities noted as incidentals in the more pressing stories the characters are telling.
I admit, that part of my fondness for this novel was the Oxford setting. The descriptions of areas that are now fairly gentrified within the city centre as filthy, run down hovels was amusing, but I especially enjoyed the description of a religious meeting in a warehouse on the quay at Abingdon (a hotbed of radicalism, apparently). I’m almost certain I know where the building the author describes must be.
If you’ve ever spent any significant time in Oxford, or are planning a little sightseeing, this is a wonderful read and one which will truly stand the test of time.
Philippa Gregory has some fairly outspoken critics, usually historians, who complain about the historical accuracy of her work. I’m not one of those, as I think her novels are usually very well written, fairly well researched, and don’t really see the problem with bringing a little imagination to the realm of history. Lots of archaeology programmes seem to be based around the art of educated guessing, so why shouldn’t fiction get to do the same? It’s not like if people who wanted a historian’s take on history wouldn’t buy an academic book by David Starkey, or a serious academic who spends their time doing proper research rather than shouting down women on TV…
Despite all that, I have to say I was truly disappointed in The White Princess, the final story in her The Cousins’ War series. Firstly, it covers a lot of the material that she’s written about in her previous Tudor and Plantagenet books, somewhat inevitably, but at times it’s a little frustrating. Even more frustrating is that it seems to assume that you’ve read all of her other books, so for someone who hasn’t read The Kingmaker’s Daughter, it was a little odd to leap straight into the story with Princess Elizabeth reminiscing about her sex life with her uncle Richard… it just made me feel like Gregory was being forced to walk a fine line between fitting the series format and not rehashing an excessive amount of content. There was huge potential to make this the story of Perkin Warbeck, and that really was a compelling part of the story, but to do so it really needed to be told from the perspective of another character and I assume that didn’t fit the publisher’s plans for the format of the series.
My biggest problem with the books though (and something of a trigger warning here) is that Elizabeth is raped by Henry VII to ensure that she is fertile before he marries her, leading to Arthur being born eight months into their marriage. I accept that rape happened, happens and, particularly in this time, women were treated like chattel and therefore it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise, but what I find particularly troubling is the way this assault is followed up in the rest of the novel. Elizabeth ultimately finds herself falling for her rapist, who then forgets about her and turns his attention to someone else because (it is implied) she should have been a more welcoming wife when she had the chance. That is a really worrying presentation of rape, regardless of when a book is set.
Created using photograph by José Encarnação under terms of Creative Commons license
I think that this opening to Under Milk Wood, written as a play for voices by my country man Dylan Thomas, is one of the finest pieces of description in the English language. I wish I’d had room to add the next section about “Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glow-worms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrogered sea.” but then I wouldn’t have been able to fit in my favourite wordplay”sloeblack, slow black” so I had to cut it.
Dylan Thomas was born today in 1914, and you have to admit, he wrote some incredibly beautiful literature in his short life.
Words cannot express how excited I am about seeing this trailer for The Book Thief movie…
It’s giving me actual shivers of anticipation. Doesn’t it look amazing? And I don’t normally say that when I see the trailer for a book I love. Sophie Nelisse is such a pretty girl but has an air of mischief which I think will be perfect for Liesel. The only problem is that while the US release date for The Book Thief is November 8th 2013 I have to wait until January 31st 2014 to see it in the UK. So frustrating, I feel like I’m having to patiently wait for everything at the moment!
Yesterday afternoon I took a detour while shopping in Oxford to drop into The Bodleian Library’s exhibition of Magical Books. As with any Bodleian library exhibition, this did not disappoint. It was so exciting to see hand written manuscripts, art work and artefacts that some of my favourite writers created or were inspired by.
Along with the usual suspects like C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkein and Philip Pullman who you would expect to see at an Oxford based exhibition of fantasy literature, there were some real gems that I hadn’t expected to see like medieval manuscripts on divination, the Rawlinson necromantic manuscript and, my personal favourite, the plates which inspired Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.
We read The Owl Service when I started secondary school and I can remember how I used to get told off for reading ahead in lessons when we were meant to be reading along with the class. It’s the first time I’d really appreciated that a story was updating and twisting an ancient myth into something new and modern (even though the book was at least 30 years old by the time I read it). I think that this is where my love of fairy tale and myth inspired novels has come from so it was really nice to be able to trace out the flower owls like Alison did in the story.
Unfortunately, I’m not able to share any pictures from the exhibition here, but the lovely people at the Bodleian have made the entire exhibition available online for anyone who wasn’t able to make it to Oxford to see it.
On Saturday I went into Waterstones, Oxford and found myself in the middle of a Regency style musical performance. I was a little annoyed that the crowd which had formed around the performers meant that I could get nowhere near the fiction books I’d planned to spend half an hour browsing, but when I heard Austentation (there to mark 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice being published) performing Greensleeves– which is one of my favourite folk songs- I quickly forgave the disruption!
No chance of getting at those books without the right costume!