I've been away on holiday, and have, as always, taken a lot of books with me, but haven't read them all because when the weather's nice - as it was up in sunny Yorkshire and Northumberland - me and D. like to do a lot of walking. But there were two which I took with me and was determined to read, I've been looking forward to both of them for months. One of them is Ann Turnbull's 'Alice in Love and War.'
I first came across Ann Turnbull's work when her 'No Shame, No Fear' was shortlisted for the Guardian children's fiction prize, along with mine. I was particularly interested in that book because it dealt with Quakers in the seventeenth century, and I'm a Quaker. I loved it, and its successor, which I was lucky enough to be able to review for the Guardian. Now she's written another book set in the seventeenth century - a period that fascinates me apart from the Quaker connection. Alice is a 'nice girl' who runs off with a soldier and becomes one of those most despised of women, a camp follower. Ann Turnbull draws her frankly but with total sympathy, so that you really care what happens to her - but through her eyes one sees the English civil war completely differently. I think this is exemplified in the scene where the Royalist army sets off for the battle of Naseby, which, of course, was to smash them to smithereens. There, up at the front, is the King, with Prince Rupert and the aristocracy, then the army follows, descending in rank and importance, and right at the end are the raggle-taggle of women. Through Alice's eyes, we see the wives of the Welsh mercenaries setting up their tents - like the Greenham Common 'benders - and scavenging food, dressed as men. Over and above Alice's own personal, gripping love-story - I don't want to give away too much about that here - Ann Turnbull shows us the pity of war, describing, with appalling honesty, the atrocities carried out by both sides; less luridly, but still importantly, she shows us the hardships and poverty the war caused England. It's a wonderful book.
The other book was Mary Hoffmann's 'Troubadour', also a story of love and war, and also dealing with an area of history that has fascinated me for a long time, that of the Albigensian Crusade - or the war against the Cathars of Southern France. Like most crusades, it was a pretty horrific affair, and, like 'Alice' this is not a novel for those who don't like to hear about man's inhumanity to man (and woman). But for anyone who's been to Languedoc and seen those white ruined castles rearing up at the top of scrubby hills, and wondered what it was like for their inhabitants when the northern French came, this will give you a fascinating, moving, and absorbing picture - and once again, the heroine will grip your imagination. Elinor, the daughter of a Cathar heretic lord, escapes from an arranged marriage disguised as a boy and becomes part of a travelling troupe of troubadours. At the same time, the Pope has called the crusade against the heretics. The focus of the novel moves between Elinor's adventures and the grim struggle of Bertran, the troubadour she's in love with, who has to fight the hopeless war against the northerners. This has to be the lost cause to trump all other lost causes, and there are some dreadful moments, though the courage of the Cathars is deeply inspiring. In addition, Mary Hoffman shows us the intellectual and artistic life of medieval women, a subject that's too often neglected. And, like 'Alice,' it had me gripped from start to finish.
I was delighted, on the first Wednesday of the holiday, to discover that Hilary Mantel's wonderful 'Wolf Hall' is on the booker shortlist. Considering that this author has written about five or more novels, all of which should have been there, I might well say 'not before time,' but anyway, it's there. I consider Hilary Mantel to be one of our best contemporary novelists, if not the absolute best, so for once, I shall be watching the Booker dinner on Tuesday week.
The last thing I want to say is that I must apologise to my brother. In my last post I talked about him terrifying me with stories of murderers and burglars creeping up the stairs. He tells me that he was just as scared, which was why he told me about his fears. So, if I made him sound like a heartless big brother, enjoying my fright, this was unfair. Actually, he was a very kind brother, with a few exceptions, such as the time he tried to persuade me to eat slugs. I'm happy to say that I didn't, however, they were black and looked like liquorice and I don't like liquorice.