Sunday, 26 August 2012

Swiss wine and cheese reviews part 1: A Dark Anatomy and The Colour

Last week my boyfriend and I went to Switzerland, where we shocked our bodies by alternatively pounding up and down large alps and eating our bodyweight in Gruyere. We also visited the chateau where Byron wrote one of his tragic poems; went to a St Bernard dog museum (complete with real dogs, all lying lazily upside-down with their eye-folds drooping); and (in my case) read a lot of books.

First was A Dark Anatomy by Robin Blake, a trashy historical murder mystery that reminded me why I'm usually cautious about reading trashy historical murder mysteries.

I’ve said before that there are several different ways to make your historical novel seem properly historical. You can either go ploughing through actual accounts from your chosen period and come up with scrupulous background detail about roofing materials and recipes; or you can read a lot of contemporary literature to make sure your characters sound right; or (and funnily enough, this is often the most successful method if you’re trying to write a crowd-pleaser) you can sit down and brainstorm vague popular concepts about your period and then make sure you name-check every single one of them. For example, if you’re writing about the middle ages, at least three of your characters must die of the plague; if it’s Victorian you must feature a fat cruel overseer whipping poor people and screaming “TO THE WORKHOUSE!” and if your story is set in Pompeii you must have someone turn to his friend and say, “Goodness, hasn’t the mountain been quiet recently?”

Different as they are, all of those methods nevertheless rest on the basic understanding that History is not just some vanished place where all the people had bad teeth and ate a lot of radishes. As every historical novelist should know, 1540 is not the same as 1640 which is not the same as 1740, just like China is not the same as Japan which is not the same as Korea. 

I wish someone had explained this to Robin Blake before he sat down to write A Dark Anatomy. I very much suspect that Blake (who does grave discredit to the noble first name that he and I share) saw C. J. Sansom’s sales figures and decided that he wanted a piece of that action. Obviously, he couldn’t set his own historical detective series in Tudor England, so he slammed his hand down on the number section of his keyboard, got ?17!40* and went with it. 

I am making this up, of course, but it would certainly explain the bewildering contents of A Dark Anatomy. I tried so hard to make the outfits, speech patterns and background detail chime in any way with what I know about the eighteenth century, but it just did not happen. There were no stomachers or tricornes. There was no political humour, or, in fact, humour of any kind. There was vague acknowledgement that British people occasionally travelled overseas, but no mention of them bringing back anything other than improbable wives – no sugar, for example, or silk, or tea. Even the poor old Enlightenment, which was sort of the defining idea of the entire century, got barely a look-in. The microscope, for example, gets a single mention (in the same sentence as molly-houses: Blake pretty much uses up his entire fund of historical detail in that one paragraph). I might be wrong – Blake might be perfectly evoking 1740s Preston, which I admit I know nothing specifically about – but none of it seems right, and when you’re writing cheap, fun historical fiction, seeming right is almost more important than being right.

Allegedly, the whole plot takes place in and around an eighteenth-century country house, and yet the characters talk and behave as though they’ve been shot through a worm-hole from (heavily stereotyped) 1540. There’s a hilariously mud-encrusted and motley cast of halfwit peasants and flatulent local officials who all stagger around praying randomly and screaming about werewolves like medieval idiots. Even local doctor Fidelis, who admittedly does have new-fangled notions about ice keeping meat fresh, is bewilderingly ready to believe that the devil might be hanging out round the back of the privy. At least coroner Cragg is reassuringly bad at detecting things. The notion that there might be MORE THAN ONE POTENTIAL MURDERER, i.e. MULTIPLE SUSPECTS, is so shocking that it blows his mind for about five chapters. He barely comes back from it in time to solve the murder.

The plot’s cookie-cutter: when Squire Brockletower’s wife Dolores is found nastily slain in some woodland, it is up to Cragg and Fidelis to work out whodunit. Blah blah blah, etcetera. There’s exactly the proscribed number of shock discoveries and suspicious characters who all turn out to be innocent, and if you’ve ever read a historical murder mystery, you’ll have essentially read this one. It’s nothing more than an ugly and fundamentally awkward serving of History Stew, written by someone who doesn’t understand how to use the material he’s been given. 

Trash, and not the good kind.

2 stars.

After A Dark Anatomy, Rose Tremain’s The Colour was a total delight. A book by someone who knows how to use words! Where the characters do not speak like Ye Olde Knocke-Offe Shoppe cut-price human beings! Where a historical period is well-imagined and made to seem interestingly different from both our own and any other! I kept turning to my boyfriend and exclaiming, “Did you know books could still be GOOD?”, and he would reply, “Yes dear,” which I knew meant that he was very happy for me.

The Colour - on the 1001 Books list, by the way, and deservedly so - is all about the New Zealand gold rush of the late nineteenth century (hence the title: in this book, gold is always referred to as the colour, which can be a bit puzzling at first if you inadvertently picture blue, or pink). Awful human being Joseph Blackstone has dragged his aged mother Lillian and reluctant new wife Harriet (who is reluctant about being a wife, not about going to New Zealand) halfway around the world to start a farm in the wilderness. When he finds a tiny bit of gold in the creek near his house, though, he loses his mind and decides that he has to have ALL THE GOLD, otherwise his life will be worthless. So he abandons Lillian and Harriet (who is way too good for him in every way possible) and goes to seek his fortune in the goldfields across the mountains. 

Of course, he doesn’t find any more gold. He ends up a horrible beardy skeleton, scrabbling around in the bottom of muddy pits and weeping (which is no more than he deserves). The farm, meanwhile, goes to pot, and Harriet is forced to go trekking awesomely across the New Zealand landscape, slowly realising as she does so that her husband is awful and she would be so much better off without him.

It’s a great plot, nicely and intelligently written, and Harriet is a wonderful main character. Admittedly, the book wastes time on a puzzling sub-plot, in which a white child and his Maori nurse slowly and mystically fade away because of something magical and Spirit-Worldy. I suppose it's all very tragic and romantic, but reading it I just wanted them to stop messing about, get up and have a sandwich. I don’t think I’m a very Spirit World kind of person.

Concentrate on the Harriet part, though, and The Colour is great, clever and fun, with a satisfactory strand of commonsense morality underneath it: don’t go chasing after gold, because you will end up losing everything and feeling really stupid. I approve of that message, and I thoroughly approve of the world Tremain has so carefully and imaginatively constructed. After I win the lottery, my next holiday will be in New Zealand.

4 stars.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I've starting this comment again, as I felt I needed to do a bit more research first! I thoroughly enjoyed Robin Blake's historical murder mystery and had no trouble with historical detail. I reviewed it on my blog, actually and can't remember off the top of my head if I gave it four or five stars, however, I liked it enough to buy his second, Dark Waters,which I have just started. Personally, I only review books that I actually like partly because I can't be bothered to write about ones I don't enjoy or even finish, and partly because I don't get a kick out of being unpleasant, but also, what with writing, family and social life, I simply don't have time. I envy you the amount of time you appear to be able to put in. I'm very happy with Robin Blake's historical credentials, he really brought the period alive for me, his book is entertaining and full of engaging characters. I'd love to be able to write as well as him.
    Well done for reading so many books. I am sure once you have finished your MA, you will find agents banging on your door and reviewers clammering to write about you. As you are doing an MA (on books) & are a book writer, you are in an excellent position to pronounce on others. However, I stand by my opinion. I loved A Dark Anatomy.

    1. You are absolutely entitled to stand by it! I really believe that it's everyone's personal response to a book that matters. It felt off to me, but if it didn't to you that's just as valid.

      I also think that you have to have an incredibly thick skin to become a writer, and if I ever do manage to get something published I'll be expecting some pretty evil reviews to come my way. I hope I didn't offend you, and thank you for taking the time to comment.