Time travel by novel, in my soggy indoor summer

Full steam ahead on the Llangollen canal

My summer holiday last month was in Wales, on a canal boat (see photo). Actually it was lovely, and not nearly as wet as that suggests. But in anticipation of a soggy week, I stocked up on some wonderful books, which have kept me almost oblivious to the rain.

So what makes a perfect summer book? For me, it needs to be one that transports me out of the everyday world. I don’t want gritty urban realism, or heart-wrenching true life struggles (I can get those at home). I’ve got a real penchant for historical fiction at the moment, for being taken out of time, as well as out of my surroundings. Happily, we seem to be in the middle of a boom in excellent historical fiction.

My admiration for Hilary Mantel knows few bounds, and Bring Up the Bodies was another breathtaking lesson in how to create an entire world, starting from the inside of one man’s head. I read an interview where she said she aimed to show us everything through the eyes of her characters – in this case the tour de force imagining of Thomas Cromwell. That comment explained for me just what is so convincing about Mantel’s historical fiction. She doesn’t point out the historical detail, even though you know it’s there – what we are shown is what Cromwell sees, what he himself notices, not what we’d notice with our 21st century eyes. So a meticulously-researched novel remains as fresh as if it was describing contemporary events.

It helps, of course, that Mantell has the most compelling turn of phrase. Certain images simply lodge in my head – the vivid description of how ‘the furnishings shrink’ from the thunderous Stephen Gardiner: ‘joint stools flatten themselves like pissing bitches’; of how Anne Boleyn’s pink and grey frock is the colour of ‘stretched innards, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body,’ and poor Anne herself, her ‘sodden remains’ lifted into a trunk after her execution. There simply is no better word than ‘sodden’ for the blood-drenched body. After Bring up the Bodies, I was unable to resist going back to re-read Wolf Hall, which seems to have got even better since my first reading of it.

After the Tudors, I sped back in time to ancient Greece, with Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles, a fabulous re-imagining of the Iliad. I confess to not having read Homer, so the story had a freshness for me that it might not have for the better educated. I much enjoyed the detail of the day to day life of ancient Greece, and the growing tenderness between the protagonists. I admit that the mythical aspects were a bit of a strain on my suspension of disbelief – the last fictional Centaur I truly believed in lived in the Narnia.

My next jump through time was to 1940s Paris, during the Nazi occupation, in Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues. I began by absolutely loving this book, not least for the poetry of the language, the utterly believable slang and jive talk of the American jazz musicians caught up in Europe at the outbreak of the second world war. Once you know the date and the place, you don’t need to be told who ‘the Boots’ were, any more than you need to be told who Louis Armstrong was.

The novel jumps around in time, back to America in the 1920s, forward to Berlin in the 1990s. Somewhere in the time travel, I began to lose emotional engagement. The story – of complex relationships, compromising circumstances, guilt and betrayal – is compelling, but the unreliability of the narrator, and my frustration with him, slowly got between me and complete enjoyment of the novel.

I took a brief break from novels after our visit to Arundel Castle, to read about the fascinating Dukes of Norfolk (even more exciting than the Dukes of Hazzard) in a historical survey by John Martin Robinson. Mr Robinson’s account is rather, shall we say, respectful, but even so, you can tell what appalling chancers some of the dukes were. It’s even more fun to read about the real-life doings of ‘Uncle Norfolk’, the 3rd duke, who plays a major role in Bring Up the Bodies. Astonishing to learn that he escaped the beheadings all around him, and died of natural causes at a ripe old age.

I’m now contemplating two equally exciting prospects – Andrew Miller’s Pure, set in 1785 Paris, or Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, which promises England from 1913 onwards. But first I’m heading for some early 19th century murder mystery frolics, with P D James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, which I’ve been promising myself for some time. Let me know if it stops raining…



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