Sunday 17 December 2017

Fact or fiction? Bits of both, for good or ill...

Come Winter By Clare Gutierrez River Grove Books (2015) €14.50 HHHII

Not having an internet presence in this day and age is akin to refusing to cotton on to one of those infernal machines that Henry Ford invented: you come across as a bit of a crank, at worst, and at best, as kind of quaint. If you're an author who is hard to find out about... well, you might want to sort that out.

It took ages to find Clare Gutierrez on a site beyond the ones that sell books, and I was on the hunt primarily because after about a third of the way through this novel, I was convinced that the writer was not a native English speaker, and I wanted to find out if the strangeness of the sentence structure had to do with awkward translation.

This was not the case. The surname is clearly Spanish but the Facebook page is in English. The 'about' section had no information on it whatsoever. It was almost as frustrating as adapting to the odd rhythms of the novel itself, and yet I found myself involved, and wanting to know what happened next.

Lady Caterina is kidnapped on her way to England after having grown up moving from place to place with her family, the head of which was an ambassador of sorts, in Europe of the 1700s. It doesn't feel like an 18th century time period, more like the Middle Ages, but even that is hard to hook onto as the evocation of place is not that precise.

The Scottish laird who has abducted the lady has done so as a favour for one of her brothers, who is trying to protect her from the intrigues of the English court, which had been her final destination.

His Lairdship decides to keep her, as her serene acceptance of her circumstances and her cheeky attempt at escape paradoxically endear her to him. She is a leader, though, and takes his castle in hand, and becomes known as a healer which, unfortunately at that time, was a way for the patriarchy to label her a witch.

So far, so standard romance-level plotting. There is something about this, though, that made me keep reading. Once I adapted to the rhythms of the text, the sense of foreboding that imbued every sentence took hold.

Had I not found it so difficult to get some answers about the author I may have found it more engrossing. I made the mistake of putting it down: it took that much longer to get back into again, and I do think that this easily could have been edited down to half its length.

Nevertheless, I read on to the end, and did enjoy quite a lot of it.


By Susan Wittig Albert Lake Union Publishing (2015) €12.50


In the introduction to this book, Wittig Albert explains her project clearly and entertainingly: Laura Ingalls Wilder achieved fame and immortality due to the autobiographical Little House books thanks to her daughter Rose, who wrote and edited them.

That Rose had anything to do with that achievement is a story in itself, and it is the story that the author tells - fictionally. In the creation of characters and situations, it feels as if the reader is being asked to take sides, and not very subtly: Rose is meant to be the heroine of this story, whether we like it or not.

The problem is, it's is hard if not nigh on impossible to like the bitter woman, and the friends she surrounds herself with, and her attitude towards her mother. One wonders how a non-fictional treatment - just the facts, ma'am - might have changed my own attitude towards the material?

In many cases, fictionalisation makes for more entertaining reading; in this case it has gotten in the way of story that is strong enough on its own, without having to project much imagination on it.


Fortunes of France: Volume 1 By Robert Merle Pushkin Press (2015) €19.40


This suffers in the other direction: the author's scholarly background and legitimate academic prowess makes what is, in the main, a rip-roaring re-telling of a turbulent time period into a sometimes turgid history lesson.

Merle's historical fiction series, Fortunes of France, is famous in that country, and ranging over 13 titles, would make a good few months reading for fans of the genre.

This is obviously a translation, and not a great one, sadly. I am sparing a thought for the translator, though, as apparently Merle wrote this series in an approximation of the French spoken in that century, and I reckon it was tricky enough for a native French speaker, much less trying to then convert it to contemporary English.

The religious and political conflicts of the time are well-embodied by the wide-ranging cast of characters, but the feeling of frequently being pulled up short by the scholarly tone made it hard to get swept up in the narrative.


By Sandra Byrd Simon & Schuster (1 April, 2015) €11.55


Identity theft gets the Gothic treatment: the newly orphaned daughter of missionaries, Rebecca Ravenshaw, returns home to England to find that someone had been impersonating her, helping herself to her inheritance and home place, and then dying.

The plot is suitable sinister and twisted, and the burgeoning romance between Rebecca and the man who ended up next in line for her legacy, the handsome Captain Luke Whitfield, is delicate but still bosom-heavingly good.

It took ages to get into, though, and the amount of bad luck heaped on the heroine from the word go was a bit much. For those who have already dug into the many offerings of Gothic literature and are ardent fans, this will do.

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