by Patricia Finney
New York: Picador USA, 1992
Was not a fan of this book to start. I did warm to it after about 75-100 pages. Not sure if it was because more plot was involved or I became used to the language.
The plot is pretty straightforward. It involves the Elizabethan equivalent to the secret service, Walsingham’s spies and operatives, who are trying to foil a Catholic assassination attempt on Queen Elizabeth at her Accession Day celebrations in 1583. Walsingham’s agents entrap and torture suspects in typical 16th century fashion and Finney relishes in the descriptions. At times I wondered about Finney’s fixation on bodily functions and how characters contributed their bodily fluids to the muck of the streets of London. Just don’t find that entertaining.
Queen Elizabeth does stay in the background. This is more focused on Walsingham’s men and the assassins. When she is mentioned, it is respectfully (often she is depicted in the image of the irritable, pasted, bald, unreasonable old woman).
The narrator is a madman, Tom O’Bedlam. He is a schizophrenic and is relaying the story from various angles. Maybe this was my difficulty in warming to this novel in the beginning. I wasn’t sure if I was reading historical fiction or fantasy. Was this an example of magical realism? I talked myself into hanging in there and not being too freaked out over not reading a traditional historical fiction work. Then at the end I find out the narrator is narrating this after his death. What?! Very discomforting to this historian.
The language is rich and colorful, especially when the narrator is speaking. Am not sure if the prose is poetic, soaring, flashy or just the phrasing of a madman. I liked much of it such as, “And here was silence, only the fire speaking to itself quietly ….
Cannot say the language was Elizabethan. Seemed modern with altered sentence structure and word choice. Here is an example: “There [at Southwark] I once shared a chamber with Becket, and neither of us learnt much law for I was too addicted to poetry and he to fighting to spend time arguing points in bastard Norman French.”
Finney provides a list of characters in the back of the book which was helpful not only to following the plot (this was a very populated novel) but also to let readers know which characters were historical figures and which fiction.
Although I would recommend this book, pretty sure I will not be reading others in the trilogy.