Saturday, 15 December 2007

The Needle in the Blood

In amongst the Christmas shopping and failure, yet again, to put up the tree (tomorrow, tomorrow!) I am having a lovely time reading Sarah Bower’s The Needle in the Blood.

Oh, what joy to read a book whose depth of historical knowledge isn’t flagged up every page or two on the ‘I’ve done all this research so you’re bloody well going to know about it’ principle. Sarah Bower obviously knows her stuff inside out, back to front and upside down and it shows. It shows in everything she doesn’t say or doesn’t have to say, it shows in the way she treats the reader like a grown-up and doesn’t explain who all her characters are and how they fit into the scheme of things. Hey, if you don’t know who The Confessor is why on earth would you be reading a book about the making of the Bayeux Tapestry in the first place?

And, even when historical details are given, they are woven in so seamlessly to the narrative, into the way her characters’ interact with each other and the world that it is a joy to behold. Sarah Bowers doesn’t go for static descriptions of things but weaves details into the sinewy dynamic of her story – for instance, the full medieval Earl’s regalia is described, item by item, as his mistress removes it! I love it, love it, love it!

I also love Sarah Bower’s characters. As far as I’m aware, Aelfgytha, late of Harold Godwinson’s court and handmaid to his mistress, Edith Swan-Neck, is an entirely fictional person but for all that – perhaps because of that – she is a very real, highly engaging woman who you expect to step off the page any minute and demand to know who you are and what you’re doing reading all about her private affairs.

Aelfgytha – despite the Anglo-Saxon name – is Welsh by descent. It’s interesting, this resort to the ‘same but different’ persona of the foreigner within. It allows all sorts of not-quite-done behaviour and accounts for radically different ways of thinking. I know – I did the same in Testament when I made Simon’s wife, Gwyneth, Welsh.

But this isn’t about Testament, it’s about The Needle in the Blood, whose other main protagonist is Odo, half-brother of William the Conqueror, everywhere referred to in the book as The Bastard which is both technically correct and – doubtless – a shorthand expression of how his English subjects felt about him. Odo is very different to William – mercurial where William is phlegmatic, imaginative where his brother is prosaic, romantic where the King is pragmatic. William comes across as, frankly, dull whereas his brother is the kind of charmer who could whisk the most resistant female off her feet. And he’s a woman’s man, he likes a woman with spirit, with intelligence, who won’t automatically let him win. Which Aelfgytha most certainly does not.

Odo’s sister, Agatha also features in the book and it was a delightful surprise to find – as one so rarely does in historical fiction – that she is gay. Gay and riddled with self-loathing it’s true but gay nonetheless. This gives a very different edge to the dynamic in the atelier, the glass-walled workshop where her embroiderers create the wonder of the ancient world which is the Bayeux Tapestry.

Though The Needle in the Blood is, essentially, a love story, it is full of such polictical intrigue that Odo and Gytha’s affair becomes a looking-glass into which we gaze to see the state of the conquered country. I haven’t finished it yet – in fact I’m only half way through, but I would unhesitatingly recommend it to anyone who has the remotest interest not just in medieval history but also in human nature and how and why people love and hate.

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