Set in South West France in the 13th century, this intriguing read explores issues that are up-to-date in an historical setting, including spiritual values, the valuing (or non-valuing) of women, homophobia and exploitation in various forms. I found it a riveting read which held together throughout and kept me interested. The story was well developed with well-drawn characters to whom it was easy to relate. I read a lot of historical novels, and I always enjoy especially those that I consider well researched and that teach me something new. In those respects, this was up with the best of them. Overall, a very enjoyable experience. Jim McKay. February 2020
I tend to approach a new novel by my brother Andrew Chapman with, frankly, mixed emotions.
Firstly, I open the book in some trepidation that its contents will be so densely researched and rich in content (as was the old 1960s Army/CCF Compo Rations, Boxes A and B, Rich Fruit Pudding, designed to slow the alimentary process on exercise) that I may not be carried forward through the narrative and will drift off course and become bogged down in a mire of the many unread non-fictional ‘improving books’ that are my more customary reading.
But secondly, I know that the author had spent two years or more in researching a multi-layered, raw historical topic about which he once knew little, and we fellow Anglo-Saxons even less. Therefore, anticipation and admiration were both high when my pre-publication, signed copy arrived in late November 2019.
I really love this book. It has taken me more than two months to finish it: I am a slow and repetitive reader, and I have not been able to hurry through it, for many babushka-esque reasons. In a way, this slow burn has complemented the reality of the story. Life, as described, in 13th Century south western France was hardly fast moving. Rather, it is dreary, it is dangerous: heretical suppression prevails through a Holy War, instigated by the Pope through his order to barons from the North to root out religious heresy in the South in the strongest possible military terms. Against this background of unequal struggle, the story’s characters enter and leave, sometimes to re-emerge much later on. But, as the years pass, the descriptive backdrop of citizens, young and old, Catholic priests, shepherds, friars, Counts, soldiers, mercenaries, travelling players, councillors, crippled beggars and Cathar and Waldensien heretics, and their natural dialogue, brings the story to life with great effect: these are skilfully woven into the warp and weft of the narrative.
Life as portrayed in the small, dying village and sauveterre of Vilanòva (the present-day Villeneuve d’Avreyon), and then in the Occitanie regional capital of Montalban (today, Montauban), is set out in such detail that we could be there, participants and observers in the communes. The change (for the worse) that happens over the twenty years or so in Vilanòva, and the vivid description of the creation of a bastide (a thirteenth century new town, if you like) that grows next to the dying village, with the increasing arrival of many new citizens, are both described in such light-touch and uncluttered detail that there is no impedance of flow in the storyline. There is another contemporary ring about this rural repopulation – not altogether for the good, in this tale.
This is all recreated – imaginatively and deftly – by the author who, not so long ago, knew nothing about bastides in mediaeval southwest France and certainly little about mediaeval building construction techniques!
Enough of the novel’s backdrop. The protagonist in this tale, brought to life both in words and in her thought-provoking stare from the book’s front cover illustration by Annie Pickering Pick, is a female blacksmith, Grazide Lamothe. She is left, following family tragedy, to support her widowed father in the Vilanòva village forge. She learns quickly the skills of the trade and thrives, especially after her father’s illness and uneasy death. Grazide is a veritable Jeanne d’Arc in her determination to be recognised as individual and equal in ability within a male-dominated and misogynistic mediaeval world. But this is never easy: the author does not shy away from portraying blatant prejudice and other difficult topics, some boldly, in an uncomfortably frank but never voyeuristic way. All show painful realities with which the characters at centre stage, the women, have to contend. There is an element of twenty first century déjà vu in all this that might well test some innate contemporary prejudices. Indeed, we may feel that the author is inviting us to do so.
The pace of the story is extremely well-judged. Without my in any way meaning to disclose the plot, I sensed the later chapters take on a completely different rhythm and urgency. Accelerando, in musical terms. I found myself ripping through those final pages (but not literally), keen to hasten on in an impatience for the denouement. When it came, then the whole story and its rationale came together in a powerful and seemingly inevitable conclusion. This was fiction writing at its most compelling level.
Beloved brother to me notwithstanding, I feel quite strongly that Andrew Chapman’s latest novel deserves a wider readership than can be achieved through self-publication. The book opens up a world about which none of us will have known. His imagination in recreating so cogently, eight centuries later, a raw and troubled period in southern French history should now put him, arguably, alongside some better-known luminaries in the essential gallery of British historical novelists. ALASTAIR CHAPMAN. Feb. 2020