The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Having loved Minette Walters other books, I was so looking forward to reading The Last Hours, her first foray into historical fiction. Set in England in 1348, it tells the story of how one resilient and clever community, Develish in Dorseteshire, survived during the deadly outbreak of the Black Plague, a plague that wiped out nearly half the population.

Centred around two primary characters, Lady Anne Develish and a serf whom she has nurtured over many years, the maligned bastard, Thaddeus Thurkell, it also explores the complex network of familial and other relationships that make up the immediate village and manor house – from the simply villainous and narcissistic Lord of the manor, Sir Richard to his equally vile daughter, Eleanor, to the various bondmen and their families as well as the alcoholic priest. How they all respond to not only news of the spread of plague, but the various threats that are set to unravel the lives they’ve built, makes compelling reading.

The novel starts slowly, introducing the reader to these various players in what’s about to become a fight for survival against overwhelming odds – and not just the sickness kind. As the plague takes its toll and the folk of Develish retreat behind the walls and moat, it swiftly becomes clear that healthy humans, and those forced into close confinement can often pose a much greater hazard than a ravaging illness.

When a murder happens among the cloistered community, only quick and drastic action prevents a greater travesty occurring.

Left with no choice but to seek both news and vitals beyond Develish’s boundaries, and led by Thaddeus, an exiled group join the brutal, devastated wider world that’s been ravaged by the plague. In the meantime, those they’ve left behind who look to Lady Anne for leadership and so much more, are forced to deal with not only their own doubts and fears, but the murderous intentions of other survivors who see the plague as an opportunity for exploitation.

The premise of this story reminded me very much of Geraldine Brooks’ magnificent Year of Wonders (still one of my all-time favourite books), a tale based on the true story of the brave souls who voluntarily quarantined themselves in order to prevent the spread of plague in 1665. But there the comparison ends. The people of Develish don’t quarantine themselves for the sake of others, but to save their own skin – not that there is anything wrong with that.

Establishing the personalities, weaknesses and strengths of the various players early, I found myself mostly investing in them. Where I struggled was in the glaring anachronisms around Lady Anne’s approach to not only health and hygiene but religion and class structures. I’ve not doubt there were exceptions to the strict rules and governance of the day, only Lady Anne seemed to buck, resist and rise above every accepted religious, social and hygiene standard set by the culture and period. This meant that most of her approaches to people and household habits smacked of 21st Century mores and notions. Part of me quite enjoyed the justification for some of her “modern” motivations and rules, that made Develish such an exceptional place, but when set against the misogynistic attitudes of first her husband and, later, what would have been ingrained in so many people – men and women – she became a medieval superhero and the tolerance and understanding extended to her by those who looked to her for leadership, more than remarkable for the time. Again, it’s always beautifully rationalised, I just didn’t always swallow it, as much as I wanted to. Lady Anne was so good, and right and smart and bold, yet also marvellously strategic, she almost (almost) became two-dimensional – and it’s testimony to Walter’s writing that she didn’t.

Where this didn’t work quite so well was in the portrayal of Lady Anne’s husband, Sir Richard. Frankly, what an utter arse without any redeeming qualities whatsoever and who just becomes worse and worse as the novel progresses and his behaviours are uncovered. How anyone, even a Norman steward can show loyalty to such a buffoon when other options are available and commons sense dictates otherwise, is a stretch.

Likewise, the daughter, Eleanor. Once more, Walters is at pains to explain and justify her putrid behaviour. Problem is, she was so damn selfish and awful, she was more a caricature and device for showing other characters’ goodness and faults than a real person.

Still, I enjoyed many of the scenes with both these characters and learning how their utterly selfish motivations and unreasonable demands were subtly overturned.

My main beef with the book was how it ended. I wished I’d known this wasn’t a complete book in itself. No. It is part of a series. I found it fairly confusing towards the final pages, particularly those inserted to give you a taste of what’s to follow. I found they made little sense and made me cross rather than longing to learn more!

Overall, the period and the English countryside and rules and regulations governing English manors and lands and how fiefdoms were controlled is well-established and fascinating, as is the ghastly way in which the plague affected people and how its spread was managed. Religion is not treated kindly and nor are the upper classes who don’t seem to have one redeemable character among them – I struggled a bit with both of these depictions, particularly as religion was the world-view then and to dissent or hold alternate (and very contemporary views) was to be a heretic and risk the salvation of the soul. Atheism might have been around, as was alternate ways of thinking about God, but again, putting all these views and arguments in the mouth and mind of mainly one character – and one who grew up in a nunnery – was sometimes difficult to go along with.

The story, once it really starts, is suspenseful and there are times I was flipping pages to find out what was happening. It’s some of the main and subsidiary characters that caused me problems in terms of completely suspending my disbelief (which I am very happy to do). They appeared to have been invented in our century and sent back in time to educate, elucidate and rescue those deemed worthy or smart enough to understand redemption comes in other forms.

The writing is, at all times, lovely and compelling and I will keep an eye out for the next instalment in this series – presumably, the hours after these last ones!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Quarry by Johan Theorin

11479983The third book in The Oland Quartet, The Quarry by Johan Theorin, follows the same sort of pattern established in the first two. While we have some of the same characters reappearing (the Davidsson family, in particular, Gertlof is the anchor or common thread that loosely links these marvellous tales), each novel centres on newcomers or new characters to the island and a mystery and/or tragedy surrounding them.

In this book, the newcomers are the Morner family: Pers and his two children. Pers inherited a cottage by the quarry from a character who played a minor role in the first book and briefly appeared in the second, Ernst, who made unusual and sought-after sculptures from the rock hewn from the quarry, and was a good friend of elderly resident, Gertlof.

Arriving to celebrate Easter, divorced Pers is looking forward to some time with his children, teenage twins, only his daughter is sick with an undiagnosed but debilitating illness and is placed suddenly in hospital, while his son seems more interested in his Gameboy than spending time with either his father or ailing sister. When an urgent call comes through from Pers’ estranged father, Jerry, who recently had a stroke and finds it difficult to communicate, Pers is forced to leave the island and go to his aid. When he arrives to pick him up in his office in the woods, what he finds is destruction and death.

Returning to Oland, Pers begins to realise that whoever is targeting his father is after anyone associated with his infamous parent’s former business and that he must look to the past to discover who it is that’s out for revenge before it’s too late…

In the meantime, his daughter’s disease and prognosis worsens, he meets the other residents old and new who also have houses around the quarry and their own secrets and histories – some of whom will impact upon him and his family as well.

Segueing again between past and present in order to create a slow reveal of the truth, Theorin masterfully controls the narrative. I love the way he blends local myth into the story and the childhood need and desire to believe in the fantastical – and for a whole variety of reasons. I also enjoy how he spares us that sometimes painful adult awakening to reality – well, he doesn’t spare us so much as gently let his characters and thus, the reader, down.

Beautifully written, the island and its distinct seasons, the characters that populate it, and the history that’s leeched into its alvar, sands and now quarry, come alive in this spell-binding book.

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Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason

19553654Jar City is the second book in the Inspector Erlendur series (but the first with the inspector translated into English), that I’ve read as part of what’s swiftly turning into a Nordic noir/crime word-feast.

Set in Reykjavik, Iceland, the inspector is a 50-year-old, rather dour, no-nonsense person, divorced from his wife who cannot stand him and has done all in her power to ensure he has little to no relationship with his two now-adult children. In this book, his daughter, Eva Lind, a pregnant drug-addict, turns to her father for help but, in doing so, finds she receives as much as she gives. It’s in the scenes with his daughter that gentler but also contradictory aspects of the inspector’s personality (and past) are revealed.

Just as the personal life of the protagonist is exposed through hints, brief interior monologues and flashbacks (mainly through memory) of the past, likewise, the solution to the major crime being investigated, the murder of an old man in his apartment, seems to lie in actions taken decades earlier. Actions that while they held no consequences (at the time) for the criminal, resonated well beyond for the victims, affecting many lives, curtailing bright futures.

Bleak, like the last book in this series I read, the grey landscapes, constant rain and chill form a steady backdrop to the investigation. The pace is steady, unfurling almost reluctantly, but keeping the reader gripped at all times. Rape, genetic diseases, secrets, lies, bureaucracy, abuse of power, the ambiguous push and pull of family, terrible brutality and arrogance all feature in this book. The characters are all so well drawn, complex, flawed and yet relatable. Motivations are apparent, people’s guilt and desires clear.

Despite the fact barely anyone is willing to aid the investigation, preferring to keep knowledge to themselves, leave dark secrets buried, or choosing to be laconic when questioned, thwarting the inspector and his partner’s efforts, suspense builds until the perpetrator is revealed, past and present collide and dreadful inevitability rears its head.

A clever, well-written book that anyone who enjoys a good crime novel, with an intricate plot and characters that ring true will thoroughly appreciate.

 

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