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Historical Fiction – learning from ‘The Nightingale’ and ‘The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez’

Nightingale 2Vianne and Isabelle are sisters whose challenge is to survive after the fall of France to the Nazis in WWII. Vianne’s house is requisitioned by the Gestapo, whilst her husband is away fighting, leading to knife-edge tensions as she tries to protect her daughter Sophie, and her Jewish neighbour, and best friend, Rachel. Meanwhile, rebellious Isabelle thinks her sister too passive, and joins the rebel partisans in the French resistance. Isabelle moves back to Paris to live with her father, with whom she has a less than warm relationship. She falls in love, but the relationship cannot blossom under these dangerous circumstances. Isabelle eventually becmes responsible for saving downed airmemn by leading them across the Pyrenees and into Spain, until she is caught – with harrowing consequences.

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.

For a historical fiction writer, Kristin Hannah’s book is a masterclass in maintaining tension through plot and character. It is not just the setting that creates the edge-of-the-seat drama. Both female characters are strong in their own way, with allegiances for which they are prepared to sacrifice everything. For both women, every chapter contains a harsh choice to be made, and one that will affect not just the protagonist, but those vulnerable people who under her care. The choices also force the women at each step to re-evaluate their position, and so each of the sisters changes and grows through the story. Both women make mistakes, but this adds to their humanity as they do their best to make the right decisions when every choice could lead to disaster. For me this was a five star read that I couldn’t put down, and when I’d finished I wanted to start all over again to see just how she did it.

Christoval AlvarezIt is the year 1586. England is awash with traitors, plotting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and bring about a foreign invasion. ‘The young physician Christoval Alvarez, a Jewish refugee from the Portuguese Inquisition, becomes a reluctant spy in Sir Francis Walsingham’s espionage service. His religion is one secret, but I shan’t spoil the surprise by telling you about Christoval’s other, and even more dangerous secret. Despite the espionage theme, this is a novel that relies not on plot, or even on tension, but on immersion to hold the reader. Ann Swinfen’s descriptions of Tudor London are lengthy, but also delicious.

A short way along Bankside, near the church of St George, we came to the Marshalsea, a towering grey wall surrounding it, crowned with iron thorns, blackened with London’s sooty smoke, and somehow greasy, oozing a foul stench and dirt of its own, like some diseased and rotting body past hope of any cure. Hell in Epitome, it was called. I had never been inside, but Simon knocked confidently on a low-browed door in a kind of lodge bulging out from one of the corner towers like a carbuncle. He exchanged a few words with someone inside, and we were beckoned in.

Reading this first book in the series I was transported effortlessly to late 16thc London. The plot meanders a little in the middle, because as it is based on the real events of the Babington plot, not everything can fit conveniently to move the reader on. This didn’t matter though, because what the book showed me was that authenticity of setting, and the application of the right detail adds an enormous amount for a historical fiction reader. I read historical fiction to be taken to another time and place with all its sounds, sights and smells, and at this, Ann Swinfen is a master. I shall be reading the rest of this series. Very highly recommended.