Friday, July 21, 2006

Alison Weir's novel, and Hamlet on the Highway

I finished Alison Weir's first historical novel, Innocent Traitor, today. This is Weir's take on the story of Lady Jane Grey, the "Nine Days' Queen." The story spans the time from Jane's birth, when she sorely disappoints her parents by not being a boy, to her death.

Weir chose an interesting narrative style for her novel. Instead of the time-honored (and very shopworn) "let me look back upon my life upon the eve of my death" first-person narration, she tells Jane's story through a variety of first-person narrators: Jane, Jane's nurse, Jane's mother, Queen Jane Seymour, Queen Katherine Parr, Queen Mary, John Dudley, and, finally, Jane's executioner. Several people who have read the book have commented that they disliked the jumps from narrator to narrator. I didn't find this bothersome, as it allows the reader to know things that Jane could not have known and to witness events she could not have witnessed; it also allows Weir to give necessary background information without sounding strained and artificial. Futhermore, the device of the multiple narrators enables Weir to make points without beating them in: for instance, we can see, as Jane and Mary can't, how much in common the rigidly Catholic Mary has with the rigidly Protestant Jane. (Sometimes, too, the multiple narrators add some comparatively light relief in what's mostly a rather dark novel, as when we discover what Queen Katherine Parr really thinks of Jane's mother.)

My only objection to the narrators, in fact, was that men were underrepresented. The only man we hear from regularly, John Dudley, is a thoroughgoing villain; though his perspective was a useful one, it would have added more balance to the book to hear from others as well, preferably more complex, conflicted men than he. I especially felt the absence of not knowing what Jane's father was thinking--or not thinking--when he laid his final, unsuccessful plot. I would have also liked to hear more from Jane's callow husband.

Jane and her family are handled well. Jane's parents treat her shabbily and insensitively, yet Weir manages to convey all of their considerable flaws without making them completely hateful. (Jane's mother Frances, genuinely grieved over her daughter's impending death yet still able to arrange to console herself with her young master of horse, is especially memorable.) Jane herself is a well-rounded character: strong-willed and good-hearted, yet with a self-righteous, almost irritating streak that saves her from being simply a pathetic victim.

All in all, I finished this novel feeling a genuine sense of loss, and I'm looking forward to Weir's next excursion into historical fiction.

Next on my reading list: an excursion to the lighter side of life with An Assembly Such as This, a Pride and Prejudice fan fiction from Darcy's point of view. Nary a chopped head to be found in this one, I trust.

By the way, when driving today, I noticed that the car in front of me had license plates reading 2BRNT2B. I presume Hamlet's failure to use his turn signals was a symptom of his famed inability to make up his mind, but I'm not sure what would explain his speeding. Perhaps his distress over the state of Denmark. Or maybe the funeral baked meats didn't agree with his digestion. Anyway, slow down, dude. The readiness is all.

6 comments:

Carla said...

Thanks for this review, Susan. I had Innocent Traitor on the 'possible' list but will bump it up higher now. I like multiple points of view in a novel for just the reasons you describe.
Oddly, the novel I'm currently reading has the same feature of being full of 'strong women' while the men are hardly there at all. Wonder if this is a new trend?

Alianore said...

I'm definitely going to get Innocent Traitor, too. I'm pretty interested in Jane Grey, and the multiple viewpoints sound very appealing to me. Would be nice to hear from the men a bit more, though.

I was going to wait till it came out in paperback, but according to Amazon UK, that's June 2007 - eek!

Sarah said...

Nice review! I bought a copy last week from a British bookseller.

It would have been interesting to hear Guildford Dudley's viewpoint, too, don't you think?

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks, ladies! I would have liked to have heard from Guilford. Maybe all of these "strong women" novels are a reaction to there being more of an emphasis on men in the past, but I think the guys should have had their say here too.

Anyone seen the movie about Lady Jane with Helena Bonham-Carter? I may rent it soon.

Margaret Evans Porter said...

I rather like Lady Jane, but it plays fast and loose with some facts--at least as I've learnt them.

Really appreciate the info on Innocent Traitor. Since reading the review in the (London) Sunday Times, it's on my "definite purchase" list.

Question: are the multiple viewpoints multiple first-person viewpoints, or third person?

Susan Higginbotham said...

First person. I'll make a correction to the review once I return from my nephew's gala four-year-old birthday party.