Never before have I so thoroughly enjoyed a book where I loathed the protagonist so much! It’s testimony to Cowell’s skills as a writer that despite her volatile, selfish, doubt-wracked hero, Nicholas Cooke, the man who is at various times an actor, soldier, physician and priest, dominating every scene and annoying the bejesus out of me, the story of his journey – from abandoned young son of a criminal father and prostitute mother – through his various occupations and callings, is gripping.
It’s not Cooke who kept me glued to the page, but Cowell’s excellent evocation of the period and the characters who populated Elizabethan London, England and even abroad. We encounter Kit Marlowe, Will Shakespeare, and other luminaries of the theatre, sciences and arts – but in Cowell’s hands they are humanised and revealed with flaws, foibles and insecurities, much like Cooke. Over the thirty year span of the novel, we see the changes wrought through Elizabeth’s reign, the constant fear of invasion, new discoveries, the way the arts were first suspiciously regarded and then flourished, how new science and knowledge changed forever the way man and the heavens were regarded and how literacy improved and self-education was not out of the question causing men (and women) to question their status and place in the universe and even their God.
The vibrancy, squalor, disease, passion and fervour are all brought to life as Cooke moves from one occupation to another, breaking hearts and having his broken in the process, learning what he can and can’t abide and selfishly pursuing a goal that is both spiritual and grounded.
I almost put this book down, so detestable at times was Cooke (he is also incredibly vulnerable and Cowell reaches deep to give readers’ access to his emotions and mental state – and while this does offer explanations for his choices, it also made me want to shake him – hard), but I am so glad I didn’t. In the end, while I never really liked Cooke (have I mentioned that?), I did come to understand him and found his story believable and refreshing. He is an anti-hero of the Elizabethan era whose weaknesses are better remembered than his strengths and yet his awareness of these is what makes him so real and ultimately memorable.