Saturday, January 24, 2015

Keith Roberts' "Pavane": Book Review

Having listened to this in the Neil Gaiman Presents audiobook read by Steven Crossley, I liked the narrator's ability to convey the Dorset voices--Gaiman notes that the speaker himself hails from this corner of England. The regional focus of this around Purbeck heightens the intimacy of the stories, as they unfold in an alternative realm ca. 1968 to 1985, where the Reformation was defeated, and the Catholic Church holds sway in heavy-handed rule over a largely unchanged population still riding horses, but having rail, and limited electrical experiments, hidden from the masses.

The first story "Lady Margaret" depicts the rail, with details of the machinery, a steam-punk predecessor perhaps, this having been written in 1966. Keith Roberts integrates a tale of unrequited love, and then hooks this into later installments in the "stately dance" of the "pavane" as it unfolds leisurely over a few generations of the Strange family. I liked "The Signaller" the most, as this cohered, more or less, about the career of a boy who becomes a semaphore transmitter, the way that coded messages are sent all over the papal lands. A novel take on how without radio or telegraph, information might have been relayed from afar. That story includes a dreamlike sequence, and we start to learn about the sign of the crab. This is hinted at in "The White Boat," a girl's fascination with that vessel, and a enigmatic tale at least as heard in the audio. I found it mysterious, having only the spoken words to go on. If I had read it in print, it might have been clearer, but I favor the ambiguity.

Impending dangers clarify with "Brother John." This shows an inquisition, under "The Office of Spiritual Welfare," suppressing witches, pagans, and all who resist Rome. It starts off well, with appropriately sinister tones as the tortures crush many innocents. But this part ends as the cruelty drives that monk to revolt against this cruelty. This chapter takes a long time to evolve into what becomes a rebellion against Catholicism by the local nobility and peasants. It's a rousing martial set-up, but the narrative starts to ramble, and this tendency increases with "Lords and Ladies" and "Corfe Gate" where more machinations entangle the Purbeck Stranges and the anti-papists. I found myself drifting from these scenarios. Yet Lady Eleanor's peevishness and bravery complicate her and Crossley expresses this well. Also, battle scenes are well described and Roberts seems to relish them. The in-between revelations, on the other hand, began to move slower, making it gruff and moody.

Some critique the inclusion of pagan elements, and the replacement of Baldur and the old gods by Christ is frequently discussed by characters, if away from the ears of the clerics. But these underlying cultural foundations for me enriched the agrarian and sustained context. They add to "The Signallers" a haunting magical passage. So did one aspect I have not found many readers notice: Aqua Sulis is used for Bath, and old names like Londinium and Durnovaria. This conservatism slows progress too, even as I wondered how if Gaelic and Welsh survived on the island, (along with Latin, Norman French, Middle and Modern English) what "Celtic" was and where that persisted post-1500 or so. Roberts as in any alternative history needs not explain every bit to the nth degree, on the other hand.

The "Coda" as many observe is tacked on too rapidly, and it either needed more elaboration, or another way the information could have been conveyed, as a lot is packed into a few sentences about what happens in the aftermath of the revolts. It is lyrical and passionate, if briefly. Overall, this remains a memorable book. If I may come up with my own take, a "steam-monk" novel of invention. (1-10-15 to Amazon US)

No comments: