Cityread starts next month and you may already know that Prophesy by S.J. Parris has been chosen as this year’s title. Hope you are planning to read it next month! It is part of a series so I thought I would take a look at the first book in the series in preparation (Prophesy is number two in the series).
The sequence starts with Heresy, the first of five novels (so far) set in the late sixteenth century and following the story of Giordano Bruno, former monk turned travelling academic and part time sleuth! Giordano Bruno was a real person and although all the novels are works of fiction they are littered with real characters and events.
The novel begins in Bruno’s youth as a monk in Italy and gives us a nice background into his character and situation. Expelled from his monastery for reading banned books he has to go on the run and is then later excommunicated for his own controversial writings – making his existence even more perilous.
Portrait of the real Giordano Bruno
Despite his fugitive status he does find favour with some powerful people due to the brilliance of his philosophy and scientific ideas. While this is a time of religious extremism and control it is also a time when learning and new ideas were embraced – these contradictions feature throughout the novels reflecting the confusing times he was living in. After an exciting life on the run, including time spent working for the King of France, Bruno travels to England to a debate at Oxford University he is also hoping to locate a rare book he is eager to read – this is where the meat of this particular story begins.
Before travelling to Oxford Bruno is asked by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham, to keep an eye out for Catholic Heretics while in Oxford. Bruno admires Walsingham and also needs the money offered for the task! He accepts with some reservations.
So you can see he’s in a bit of a pickle before he even begins! He’s hated by some in Protestant England because of his Catholic background. Hated by others because he has been excommunicated. People tend not to trust him because he’s a foreigner. He is eager to impress in a prestigious academic debate even though he doesn’t know the English debating style. He wants to find a book, but can’t ask openly about it as it concerns elements of sorcery and could see him accused of witchcraft. He has been told to look out for Catholics and report them to the authorities but his own instinct is for religious tolerance. As soon as he arrives in Oxford he finds himself attracted to the beautiful and clever daughter of the University Rector – and she is very much out of bounds to a foreign former Catholic!
There is enough here for an exciting novel already…but then there is a grisly murder!
I won’t go into too much detail about the crime as this is basically a plot driven whodunit and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
I do definitely think it is worth a read. The novel really immerses you in this fascinating era and the plot is pacey and exciting. I suppose my only criticism is that, now I have also read Prophesy, the second novel is considerably better! But this is a good sign as it hopefully means the series will develop and improve as it goes on. In Hersey, while the ideas and feelings of the era seem well described, I often found it difficult to imagine the physical surroundings as S.J. Parris describes them (whereas in Prophesy the setting of Elizabethan London is extremely vivid).
This is a wonderfully clever book. The story is about bees from the point of view of bees, one particular bee, Flora 717. Through her we learn all about the regimented world of the hive with it’s strict rules and inflexible hierarchy. We learn about how bees work and learn and communicate. It’s so well written, you really get lost in their world where, although some bees can speak, instinct and knowledge stored in the structure of the hive are just as important.
I admired this work greatly, but a found it’s alieness a slight downside. It’s so different from the human experience that I couldn’t really relate to it. Certain themes are very popular in novels as they are things most of us understand, our hopes, fears etc, themes like love, crime, family life, horror. None of these were really there for me so I didn’t find it hugely exciting, at times it felt more like reading poetry rather than a novel. I could appreciate that it was very good, but at no stage did it have me gripped.
An atmospheric tale of a young woman committed to a mental institution.
While locked away in the Lake House Anna sees a bridge, she thinks this is the only means of escape and imagines running over it, only to be told that the bridge is actually painted. There is no escape via that way as a young mother of two jumped off it holding both her babies leaving the home owner no choice but to knock it down. They decided to painted a mural in so much detail it matched the beautiful bridge because some guests were disturbed that it had gone and it was the most beautiful sight in a house full of sadness and gloom.
The book is set in Victorian London, the main character is Anna Palmer. Anna is originally from Dover. Her father was a sailor and died at sea, her mother is a housebound widow living on the white cliffs. Anna was the youngest of her sisters and did not marry until mid-twenties. She married a Vicar called Vincent Palmer and moved to London with him to live in the vicarage. She is described as a beautiful young woman with soft white skin and beautiful long brown hair. Her husband’s reason for institutionalizing her is that he believes she is crazy because she claims to have dreamed of men drowning at sea calling for her, so she packed her bags and set out to help them. Her behaviour sounds a little bit absurd but is there a hidden agenda in Mr Palmer extreme reaction? Anna finds a letter addressed to a Miss Maud Sultan which suggests to the reader that he is hiding something.
Vincent Palmer comes across as a very cold and distant character who doesn’t involve himself in much conversation. He is devoted to his vicarage and is here on earth purely to do his godly duties. But putting his new wife in a mental institution is not done with pure motives, Vincent has been involved in an affair, in fact his whole marriage is an affair as he was with Miss Maud Sultan before he was married to Anna and he has a child with her! It is described that on the wedding night him and Anna made plain blunt love it was over in seconds and she felt nothing no emotions – when the book it talks of Miss Maud and Mr Palmer it sounds more electric you can read the passion and depth, they seem more suited together. Later we discover the reason for his marriage, he is a vicar and it was required of him to set an example to his people and marry a clean young women. Hence why he chooses Anna, Miss Maud is a stripper so despite his love he is forbidden to marry her as his duty to god is much stronger.
When we come to the Lake House mental institution the cast of characters is widely expanded:
• Querios Abse (owner) is a very dominant and in control man who has inherited the home from his father. He grew there as a boy and isn’t too bothered about traveling outside the walls of the institution. His business is going downhill as it is set in a time when government funded asylums began to blossom.
• Emmeline Abse ( his wife) is a woman who has devoted herself to her husband and sacrificed her life to stay in the grounds of the institution, she supports him and raises the children.
• Catherine Abse (his daughter) is very creative. She loves reading poetry and she longs to go out and travel instead of being stuck in the grounds of her dad’s institution isolated from society.
• Talitha Batt (longest resident) she was placed into the lake house by her family because she fell in love with an Asian man and her family disapproved so she eloped with him but was found and dragged to the asylum, they collect her for Christmases and New Year’s but have said until she no longer loves him or has any feelings for him she is insane.
• Mrs Lovely (ex patient/new staff) was once a patient at the lake house but showed good signs of recovery and now works for Querios Abse. She is very common in the way she speaks and sympathises with the patients a lot more than others.
Wendy Wallace is truly an amazing author, she seems to draw you in within the first few pages. The main feature that made me enjoy the book is her ability to describe. She goes into such depth about how the characters feel and look it’s almost like there’s a real person you can picture in your head and you can sympathise with their emotions and understand their actions. The way the book is written makes it so easy to escape to Victorian times and imagine yourself as a by passer hearing someone else’s story. I usually find it hard to feel this captivating effect but it was easy with this story.
I would definitely recommend it also followed by her other novel (Sacred River) which I’m reading now. I can’t think of a bad word to say about this book I loved every moment of it and felt she never got cross tracked or mixed up, it was easy to read and understand each character and their role in the story.