The Ties That Bound by Barbara A Hanawalt

I read this book a few years ago when I was undertaking research for an earlier novel, The Brewer’s Tale and remember being so impressed with it. Returning to it again (as I am also returning to the Middle Ages with my next book – only a slightly earlier period), I was once more struck not only by the lucidity and depth and breadth of research, but by the astute observations Hanawalt makes, observations always backed by evidence. Where there is little or none, Hanawalt also points this out and alerts her reader to the fact. But what makes this book so exceptional is its accessibility and readability. It is a joy to read and lose oneself in.

Instead of focussing, as so much history has, on the nobility or royalty or even religious bodies and thus power-brokers of a particular country or culture (mainly because that’s about and for whom records were kept), The Ties That Bound chooses instead, as Hanawalt puts it, to “enter the doors of the peasant’s house” and give voice to those who didn’t have one. Choosing the family and its material environment as her foundation, Hanawalt investigates how, why and when families survived in the Middle Ages (she uses the fourteenth century as a rough framework), focussing on their working patterns (and so the medieval economy as centred around family, landholdings, agriculture and industry), marriage, childbirth, childhood, adolescence, godparents, household sizes, their structures – in terms of people as well as houses and land worked – sickness, death, neigbourhoods, manorial allegiance, gilds, village life, festivals, weather, war, and conflict and examines the impact all of these had on the day to day living of the average person in England over this period.  She also addresses the dramatic changes that occurred following the Black Death in 1348-49.

Image result for medieval peasant images

Using coroners’ rolls (among other and local records) to examine patterns of accidental death as well as homicides etc. she is able to cleverly contest and even overturn earlier findings and sentimental assumptions about those who lived in the Middle Ages. Whereas other historians have often sought to demonstrate the differences to as well as distance from medieval family life and the modern one, Hanawalt is able to show that while there were, of course, differences, they were not as great as previously thought. After all, when all is said and done, we’re basically human whether we lived in the 1300s or now in the 21st century.

Barbara Tuchman notes in her wonderful book, A Distant Mirror, quoting Voltaire, “history doesn’t repeat itself, man [sic] does,” and this is something Hanawalt proves over and over  – our capacity for great kindness, cruelty, generosity, greediness, violence, selfishness and love – towards each other whether family, kin or stranger, no matter what our class, education or earning power.

This is a terrific book for scholars, students and anyone with a passion for history and a readiness to know how the “other three-quarters” lived.

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What the Wind Knows by Amy Harmon

Recommended to me by a dear friend, this time-slip novel about a young, grieving American woman, who journey’s to Ireland with her grandfather’s ashes only to find herself transported back into his history, is hauntingly lovely.

The book starts in 2001, when Anne Gallagher, despondent and lost over the death of her beloved grandfather, Eoin, fulfils his final wishes by taking his ashes back to his home country to spread them over the lake he loved.

Heart-sore, lonely, yet enchanted by this country she’d only ever known and loved through her grandfather’s stories, Anne is both mesmerised and lost. Knowing she is named after and resembles her grandfather’s mother strongly, she seeks solace in the few mementoes she has of her grandfather’s life, including a detailed journal written by the man who was like a father to her own grandfather, a doctor named Thomas Smith. Fittingly, while absorbed in the past and drifting through the present, Anne is wrenched back in time to 1921 and the height of the troubles in Ireland, when Michael Collins and those who believed in the future he saw are fighting for Irish independence – including Eoin’s father figure, Dr Thomas Smith.

These are dangerous times and moreso because there are those who would see Anne Gallagher  – the past one and the modern one – dead. Over the next few months, as tensions increase and Ireland draws closer to war – civil and with Britain, Anne finds comfort in the new life and loves she is forging, a healing and simultaneous remembering and forgetting that is both painful and joyous. But Anne knows she is living on borrowed time. As a child of the future, does she have a right to this past or is it one she’s lived before? Or will any chance of learning the truth be taken from her?

This is an exquisite story that is so easy to lose yourself in, even at its bleakest moments. Like so much good historical fiction, you also learn while reading it. Having an Irish grandfather who fled Ireland at this time (while being fired upon) it was easy to have sympathy with the causes being espoused. The conflict was bitter, confusing and caused so much heartache and bloodshed. All of this, and the inner turmoil it created, the families and friendships it tore apart, is beautifully explored. The reader sees the “troubles” through Anne’s eyes, someone familiar with the written history but swiftly learning that living it, with all its inherent danger, immediacy and pain, is altogether very different.

The love-story woven through it – or rather, love stories – there are a few and all with Anne at the centre – are really moving and relatable. So are the countryside and its warm, stoic and superstitious people.

A fabulous read that kept me awake until the wee hours so I could finish it and then beyond that while I wept a storm. A good one.  

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The Scholar by Dervla McTiernan

The second Cormac Reilly book by Dervla McTiernan, The Scholar, is a gripping read, a genuine page-turner that had me staying up into the wee hours because I simply had to finish it. 

Cormac and his scientist girlfriend, Dr Emma, have now moved to Galway where Cormac has been assigned cold cases and given the cold shoulder by his new bosses while Emma takes up a prestigious job in a pharmaceutical research company attached to the local university. When a young woman is found brutally murdered on campus grounds, and Emma is the one to discover the body, it sets in motion a chain of events that have devastating consequences, not just for the victim’s friends and family, but for Cormac and Emma as well.

McTiernan has done a marvellous job of expanding upon the primary characters she established in her debut novel, The Ruin, and introducing some new ones as well. She also uses police politics and procedures to give the reader insight into how various characters cope with not only the mundanity of the everyday, but the impact this, and the trauma of police work, can have upon families, individuals as well as the toxicity of certain personalities and their motivations in the workplace. DS Cormac Reilly is a terrific character and his relationship with Emma is still finding its feet as she deals with the fallout of the past and he has to overcome his urge to protect her. It feels real as do the various issues they have that any busy professionals with psychologically and physically demanding jobs as well as emotional baggage could face. 

Not only does McTiernan create relatable characters you invest in (or even dislike intensely even while understanding why they might behave a particular way), but the plot is also given careful treatment. It is tight, totally believable and intense. I had to know how this book resolved itself and couldn’t sleep until I did – and then it kept turning over and over in my head.

A fantastic follow-up to what’s already proving to be a sensational series. Cannot wait for the nest installment. 

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The Nowhere Child by Christian White

When Christian White appeared on ABC breakfast to discuss his debut novel, The Nowhere Child, I was immediately struck by not only his humbleness, but about how he spoke about the craft of writing. Then, of course, there was the summary he gave of his novel. I confess, I was hooked, and wasted no time downloading The Nowhere Child, anticipating with no small degree of excitement what I might discover (another great novelist and tale).

I was not disappointed.

This story about a young woman, Kim Leamy, who is approached by an American man on the streets on Melbourne, is marvellous and utterly gripping. The man tells Kim he believes she is actually Sammy Went, a girl who was kidnapped from her home, Manson, in Kentucky 28 years earlier. Refusing at first to credit such an implausible notion, as she begins to delve into the possibility, everything Kim thought she knew, about herself, her family and her past is suddenly thrown into doubt.

Left with no choice, Kim/Sammy must now go backwards in time, to the place this man believes she originated from to confront what might be her past in order to reclaim her present and her future. But the past is a dark place filled with secrets, some of which should never be disturbed…

Segueing between “then” and “now”, the USA and Australia, as well as moving between first person PoV and third person, this is a masterfully plotted, beautifully characterised novel that draws the reader into not only small-town life with its strange folk, customs and religious devotees, but also into what makes and breaks a family. Able to move the reader between places and times with ease, White paints a picture of different kinds of family life, tragedy, grief, confusion, tolerance and intolerance, loss and guilt so well.

Particularly fascinating (and repellent) were the strange religious cult (who refuse to embrace that name) that have a peculiar hold over the township – even of those who don’t approve of or believe in its practices.

Eerie at times, always plausible and with some excellent twists, this is such an accomplished book (with a simply lovely Author’s Note and Acknowledgments). I am really looking forward to what White produces next. Highly recommended.

 

 

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The Other Wife by Michael Robotham

The latest book in the Joseph O’Loughlin series, The Other Wife is a cracker of a read that I dare you to be able to put down once you start. I forced myself only so I could savour the joy of a great story with characters I’ve grown to know and love and who are embroiled in a plot both dark and, for Joe at least, deeply, personal.

The book opens with Joe relocated to London with youngest daughter Emma, contemplating life after the death of his wife, when he receives the call adult children both dread and half anticipate: his eminent surgeon father has been admitted to hospital and is on life support.

Racing to be by his father’s side, Joe reflects upon this cold, distant and judgemental man he barely knew and yet whose approval he endlessly sought. When he arrives at ICU, his father is not alone. A younger, lovely woman is sitting by his side, clutching his father’s inert hand. But it’s when she tells Joe who she is, that his world is turned upside down and inside out.

Everything Joe thought he knew is now unstable and with each new piece of information, he seems to lurch from one discovery and response to another. Not even the grounding presence and help of Vincent Ruiz, retired cop and now a corporate investigator, provides the stability Joe needs.

The more Joe delves into his own and other’s histories, the more suspicious he becomes about what really happened to his father and why, but when the truth is finally revealed, not even Joe is prepared for the consequences.

Superbly written, tight, fast-paced and emotionally fraught yet always true, this is a magnificent book that puts family and personal histories under the microscope and doesn’t hold back. It’s explores the assumptions we make – about those we think we know and those we don’t. How unfair and self-righteous these sometimes are and the terrible outcomes that can occur when we’re swift to judge.

No-one is more honest or raw in his judgements than Joe – especially about himself. I think that’s what makes his character rich, real and so appealing. Flawed, vulnerable and yet with a strength he isn’t always aware of, this book really has him centre stage, placed in an oft-cruel spotlight under which he still manages to star.

My only disappointment (as always happens with Robotham) is that I now have to bloody well wait for his next book. Please don’t leave me waiting too long. This was stunning.

 

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