THE SUN AND THE MOON by Patricia Ryan (Review)

Another by Patricia Ryan, author of Still Life with Murder, which I noted was “one of the best – and best written – historical crime novels I have ever come across”.

When I began The Sun and the Moon, I didn’t know it was a sequel. In fact, I didn’t realise that until I had finished it and found I was being recommended Book 1 – Silken Threads. So don’t let that put you off. It really does “stand alone”.

I also thought it was going to be a medieval spy story, but it turned out to be much more than that. Spy story it certainly was – the hero, Hugh of Wexford, a sort of 12th-century James Bond, working for Henry II – but it is also a medieval love story which occasionally crosses genres yet again to become erotica. The long and detailed description of the gentle deflowering of a virgin is perfect, but there are a couple of other set-pieces – one overt BDSM scene – that strike me as perhaps gratuitous here, in this context. Only having read the one other book by Patricia Ryan before, I am not sure whether this kind of thing is characteristic. Maybe it is. In Still Life with Murder, there are frequent references to Nell’s past life as a prostitute, but no flashbacks; perhaps there should have been. Yes, I believe now, having read this other book and seen how good she is at this kind of thing, that there should have been, that it would have filled out the background. So, on second thoughts, those scenes in this medieval story are not gratuitous after all. I’ve changed my mind.

I’m rambling here, but I am going to leave this as it is. Suffice it to say that while Patricia is not as at home in 12th-century Oxford and Southwark as she is in 19th-century Boston, Mass (“Bloody Hell!” seems hardly medieval – I’m more used to such colourful and authentic sounding phrases as “God’s Bollocks!”) this is another very good story and while Hugh of Wexford is a bit stereotyped (the hard case with a heart of gold) Philippa of Paris, the virginal James Bond girl, is completely original.

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MORALITY PLAY by Barry Unsworth (Review)

As is so often the case with Barry Unsworth’s novels, the reader finds himself living the life of an outsider, in this case a whole gallery of typically medieval outsiders: a young priest on the road, outside his diocese and therefore outside the law; a troupe of impoverished strolling players struggling to survive in the middle of winter; a whore,down on her luck, travelling with the players; a group of religious dissenters, the Brethren of the Spirit … And all involved in what can only be described as a very literary medieval mystery.

It was a death that began it all and another death that led us on. The first was of the man called Brendan and I saw the moment of it. I saw them gather round and crouch over him in the bitter cold, then start back to give the soul passage. It was as if they played his death for me and this was a strange thing, as they did not know I watched, and I did not then know what they were.

Thus the story opens. The young priest, Nicholas Barber, freezing cold (having lost his cloak in a narrow escape from an irate husband who returned unexpectedly) and starving hungry, happens upon a death scene being performed by a company of players; only the death is real and because of the death the players are one man short: Nicholas is co-opted.

He travels north towards Durham with them (they have been ordered to perform at Durham Castle on Christmas Day) but before they can get there they are caught up in the death of a child – a boy, Thomas Wells – and the story of the young woman accused of murdering him.

It is not, though, your typical “medieval mystery”. The players simply need money to continue their journey north and the only way they can lay hands on any is to perform a play that will attract an audience. Martin, their leader, decides to perform a “true play”, the play of this local murder; but to perform a play based on such a thing is quite unheard of. “Who plays things that are done in the world?” demands one of the shocked players when Martin suggests it.

Then, when they perform it, they find it is false: it does not work.

The whole first half of the book builds up to the performance of the first Play of Thomas Wells (which they subsequently rename The False Play of Thomas Wells) and its follow-up, The True Play of Thomas Wells; the second half of the book is the traumatic if not finally tragic sequel to these performances.

As a player, Nicholas sees everything, from medieval life in the raw –

I saw the beggar who had come to our fire and spoken of lost children. An egg had fallen and smashed below the stall, where the snow was trodden. The yolk of the egg made a yellow smear on the snow and a raw-boned dog saw it at the same time as the beggar did and both made for it and the beggar kicked the dog, which yelped and held back but did not run, hunger making him bold. The beggar cupped his hands and scooped up the egg in the snow and took it into his mouth and ate all together, the egg and the fragments of shell and the snow

– to a great joust. Nicholas, imprisoned in a castle tower, watches the joust taking place in the lists below and realises that the knights and nobles too are performing in their own play; and later sees a dying knight, mortally wounded in the joust, with “no role left to play but this last one of dying, that comes to all.”

Fine writing and a fine story with some great characters and a vivid reconstruction of the life of those particular outsiders known as players whom we now think of as central to the culture of an age and place and people.

a 340 dollar horse and a hundred dollar whore (by Charles Bukowski)

don’t ever get the idea I am a poet; you can see me
at the racetrack any day half drunk
betting quarters, sidewheelers and straight thoroughs,
but let me tell you, there are some women there
who go where the money goes, and sometimes when you
look at these whores these onehundreddollar whores
you wonder sometimes if nature isn’t playing a joke
dealing out so much breast and ass and the way
it’s all hung together, you look and you look and
you look and you can’t believe it; there are ordinary women
and then there is something else that wants to make you
tear up paintings and break albums of Beethoven
across the back of the john; anyhow, the season
was dragging and the big boys were getting busted,
all the non-pros, the producers, the cameraman,
the pushers of Mary, the fur salesman, the owners
themselves, and Saint Louie was running this day:
a sidewheeler that broke when he got in close;
he ran with his head down and was mean and ugly
and 35 to 1, and I put a ten down on him.
the driver broke him wide
took him out by the fence where he’d be alone
even if he had to travel four times as far,
and that’s the way he went it
all the way by the outer fence
traveling two miles in one
and he won like he was mad as hell
and he wasn’t even tired,
and the biggest blonde of all
all ass and breast, hardly anything else
went to the payoff window with me.

that night I couldn’t destroy her
although the springs shot sparks
and they pounded on the walls.
later she sat there in her slip
drinking Old Grandad
and she said
what’s a guy like you doing
living in a dump like this?
and I said
I’m a poet

and she threw back her beautiful head and laughed.

you? you . . . a poet?

I guess you’re right, I said, I guess you’re right.

but still she looked good to me, she still looked good,
and all thanks to an ugly horse
who wrote this poem.

THE SILVER WOLF by Alice Borchardt (Review)

Alice Borchardt’s The Silver Wolf is set in Rome in the time of the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne, the latter half of the eighth century AD. But the great city is not now what it once was: Regeane didn’t know what she’d expected of the once-proud mistress of the world when she’d come to Rome. Certainly not what she found.

The inhabitants, descendants of a race of conquerors, lived like rats squabbling and polluting the ruins of an abandoned palace. Oblivious to the evidence of grandeur all around them, they fought viciously among themselves for what wealth remained. Indeed, little was left of the once-vast river of gold that flowed into the eternal city. The gold that could be found gilded the palms of papal officials and the altars of the many churches.

And this is true. Life in the Rome of the Dark Ages was squalid and sordid in almost every respect, though as the celebrated courtesan Lucilla points out, it was in some ways an improvement over the past: for instance, the hypocaust that heated the baths of the villa at the end of the first century AD “was fired by slaves who never saw the sun from one end of the year to the other“, whereas now, her men “are paid extra to fire the hypocaust and are always happy to do so. … This world is better than that of the ancients.” Maybe. She should know. You will decide for yourself after you have entered it.

The book is full of magic and mystery: shape-shifting and werewolves; ghosts, and other spirits, good and evil; involuntary psychometry; astral travel; a miraculous healing – and full, too, of the kind of medieval outsiders I always identify with immediately, for instance Lucilla, the new Pope’s mistress, who is accused of witchcraft by his enemies; a female werewolf named Matrona, who has been alive “since the beginning of time”; and a one-time leading intellectual beauty and arbiter of fashion, now with no nose and living in a convent in Rome.

Regeane is a werewolf, as was her father before her. When the book opens, she is being held prisoner (a steel collar and chain in a locked room with a barred window) by her sadistic uncle, who is of course aware of her “affliction” but wants her to go through with the marriage anyway then kill, or help him kill, her husband, who is very rich. He will pocket the proceeds and continue to “supervise” (his word) his niece. Thanks to Lucilla, she manages to avoid this fate, but as the Queen of the Dead later tells Regeane, “Woman Wolf, the road to paradise is through the gates of hell,” and Regeane does indeed go through these gates and through hell (and we with her) before she achieves happiness.

The writing is superb, and some of the lines unforgetable. I could quote all night, but how about this?I have often thought if one could impart the doings of humankind to a rose, the only thing it would understand would be the sweet, drawn-out lovemaking of a drowsy afternoon.”

Nevertheless, it is in describing the relationship between the woman and the wolf that the book most distinguishes itself. For understand that this is not one person shape-shifting, it is two distinct personalities – two utterly different personalities, one a woman, one a wolf – both occupying the same two, interchangeable, bodies. It is, so far as I know, absolutely original and quite unique. Normally the shape-shifter is the villain of the piece, but here the wolf is no creature of horror, she is something natural and marvellous, while the woman, Regeane, is the heroine. We feel everything she feels – and everything the wolf feels – experience everything they experience; and from the first page, and right till the end, identify with her – with them – completely.

MY MADONNA (by Robert Service)

I haled me a woman from the street,
Shameless, but oh so fair!
I bade her sit in the model’s seat
And I painted her sitting there.

I hid all trace of her heart unclean;
I painted a babe at her breast;
I painted her as she might have been
If the Worst had been the Best.

She laughed at my picture and went away.
Then came, with a knowing nod,
A connoisseur, and I heard him say,
“‘Tis Mary, the Mother of God.”

So I painted a halo round her hair,
And I sold her and took my fee,
And she hangs in the church of Saint Hillaire,
Where you and all may see.

LADY IN THE SNOW, BY KUNIYASU (by John Burnside)

A prostitute, in fact.
We know this
by the rush mat under her arm and by the way
her sash is tied.

The snow has been falling all day
in thick
slow waves
filling the gaps between the young bamboos
blurring the lantern light behind her with a scuffed
white fur.

She must be cold:
she is shielding her face from the wind
and her feet are naked in the high
wood sandals
which leave a trail
of blue-black chevrons on the narrow path
like crows’ feet
or the worn calligraphy
that hides the artist’s name and printer’s mark
amongst the grey-green spikes of winter leaves.