... a drowsy blackbird sang a single muted note. Another replied. A thrush interrupted. Sparrows disagreed ... It was a trick he had learnt, of paying close attention to every small detail of life. If he gripped hard enough onto the observations and sensations of each moment, he could haul himself hand over hand through the day without having to remember. (p.5)
Third in trilogy that began with The Lady Tree and continued with Quicksilver, this novel focusses on Zeal Beeston, left behind at Hawkridge in the lush Hampshire countryside when her lover John Nightingale was banished to the New World. Zeal embarks upon a marriage of convenience with Philip Wentworth, an ageing soldier who's sought a simple life and forgetfulness at Hawkridge after a chequered career. But Hawkridge, ruined by fire, needs rebuilding, so Zeal hires a friend of Philip's, 'a young man with an interest in Italian architecture', to help her design a grander and more beautiful house. Enter the improbably-named Lambert Parsley, who loves Zeal as a sister (his baser desires are the reason he had to leave London in a hurry) and willingly indulges her vision of a house filled with memories, images, clues.
Zeal still hopes that John will come back to her. Whenever a horseman appears on the road, her heart leaps. Seven years, the term of his banishment, is not (she tells herself) so very long. But in the turbulent years before the outbreak of civil war, nothing is certain or safe. Zeal's accused of witchcraft (and half-believes it herself: there are a lot of deaths, and maybe her subconscious rage has something to do with them). She's accused of harbouring Catholics; Doctor Bowler, the estate parson, worships his God with music and joy and is strongly disapproved of by the Puritan minister Gifford.
And meanwhile she begins to unravel the puzzling past of Philip Wentworth, hoping thereby to find a way of imagining what John Nightingale might be living through, in the colonies.
I like Zeal a lot: she reminds me more than ever of a rather unpolished (and hot-tempered) Philippa Somerville, and she fears only two things, ignorance and loss of control. (Both of which, of course, she'll suffer before the novel's out.) She builds her Palace, with a labyrinth beneath, but realises too late that labyrinths have monsters at their heart.
The story's told through narrative, through letters, through the paperwork and small business of a large country estate, and through Zeal's work-book:
- Engage a second theatre artificer to help Cobb with new devices and illusions (if such a man can still be found in London)
- Begin at last to move belongings into east wing
- With Sir Richard, discuss fining of J Simms and F Bull for brawling again with Dauzat's glaziers
Dickason's writing is delicious: it doesn't obviously strive for period accuracy, or attempt an old-fashioned ambience, but there's nothing out of place. She has an excellent eye for detail and a strong sense of comedy -- though there's wrenching misery here too. And the world she describes is full of inconsequential details that make it more real than the setting of many a contemporary novel.
I'm a little wary of Dickason's other, more recent, books, which seem to be packaged to appeal to Philippa Gregory's readership. On the other hand, what sells, sells: and if cover art of wistful young women in period costume entices more people to read Dickason's prose, all shall be well.