Review by Helen McIver
I love it when scholars turn their hand to historical novels. Their fiction can breath new life into characters we know remarkably little about. Or indeed some we think we know quite a bit about. For example, Hilary Mantel (Pulitzer prizes: Wolf Hall, Bringing up the Bodies) Deborah Harkness (Discovery of Witches, Shadow of Night) Diana Gabaldon (Outlander series- yes I am well into the throes of the 7th installment).
Bruce Holsinger with A Burnable Book. He is an award medieval literary scholar (University of Virginia) whose debut fiction immerses you immediately into medieval London (1385). This is the world of Chaucer, whom we all recognize for his historical significance if you haven’t actually read his Canterbury tales (and really, don’t miss them, in almost any translation!). He has been vividly brought to life within these pages, and yet this book is about another poet John Gower and their complex interwoven lives and political intrigues of Richard IIs England. There is a missing manuscript which prophesies the death of the kings of England.
This is a riveting tale of poets, princes and politics with London as a central character. It is actually three cities, the walled city of London, and Outside: Southwark and Westminster. Several voices from these locations reveal the intricate layers of the story. The time is after the Black Death and the portrayal of medieval life from the slums and stews to clergy and castles is fascinating. It was also a pivotal year for the aristocratic classes. Holsinger’s use of unusual documents to create characters based on actual historical figures makes for a very compelling read. This is a clever, entertaining literary mystery full of period detail which intrigues you while forcibly repelling you. I have zero desire to live in Chaucer’s England. But I had to investigate more on who Gower was, and what he wrote.
“Agnes ….suspects the import of what she holds. A woman has just died for it, a man has just killed.
For what? ….
A cloth, a book, a snatch of verse.
Which was worth dying for?”
“If you build your own life around the secret lives of others, if you erect your house on the corrupt foundations of theirs, you soon come to regard all useful knowledge as your due. Information becomes your entitlement. You pay handsomely for it, you use it selectively and well. If you are not exactly trusted in certain circles, you are respected, and your name carries a certain weight. You are rarely surprised, and never deceived. Yet there may come a time when your knowledge will betray you.”
“London often treats the passing of winter into spring with cold indifference. That year was no different. February had been an unforgiving month, March worse, and as the city scraped along towards April the air seemed to grow only more bitter, the sky more grey, the rain more penetrating as it lifted every hint of warmth from surfaces of timber and stone.”
“However innocent on its face, no request from Chaucer was ever straightforward.”