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Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely

LamentationWhat is particularly fine about Sansom’s Shardlake, is not just that there are complex, credible stories, blending known history with the imagined individuals Sansom so wonderfully delineates, nor just the excellent evocation and fleshing out of time, place and history itself, in a form without dryness – what is known or surmised from research given life and fascinating detail, nor even just the marvellous word-smithery, the satisfying way words, sentences, paragraphs and all the rest are put together.

Instead, it is I suppose the creation of a character, lawyer Matthew Shardlake, who is wonderfully complex, authentic, self aware, honest about his failings – and is totally credible. I love the insecurity and keeping-the-reader-guessing of the Unreliable narrator – but, actually, with what relief I surrendered to an utterly reliable narrator, letting the reader inside his heart and head – it is the WORLD our narrator lives in, which is unreliable, dangerous, not to be trusted.

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein. Would you ever want to look into this man's eyes?

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein. Would you ever want to look into this man’s eyes?

And what a world it is. It is 1546, Henry VIIIth, monstrous, psychopathic, with ultimate power, is dying. The kingdom is riven with religious and political extremism, with factions vying for power and control, readying themselves for the time when the king dies (itself a treasonous topic to even give voice to). Henry’s son, Edward, is still a boy – which faction will win the right to rule as Regent? These were most dangerous times – particularly as Henry flip-flops, as his health declines, in his own faith on the spectrum of reform and tradition. It’s a most Orwellian time, with trials for heresy, torture, betrayal and burning for espousing beliefs which may have been acceptable last month, and are so no longer, this.

Woodcut of the burning of Anne Askew for heresy, 1546

Woodcut of the burning of Anne Askew for heresy, 1546

Shardlake (well, I should probably say, Sansom) drops nuggets of fascination on every page about this period in the dying years of Henry’s reign, like the fact that the very clothing people wore could be something which broke the law – there was a class system in terms of who could wear what, fabrics, colours, decoration – you literally were not allowed to dress above your station – or the details of Tudor medical practice.

But, to return to Shardlake. Someone, another reviewer, possibly a blogger, made mention that Shardlake felt like ‘a friend’. And that it is exactly. A fictional person (I suppose we must admit) but one so real that the reader kind of forgets Sansom wrote the book, as the ‘I’ of Shardlake’s narration is so very, very real. And because we care so much for this remarkably honest, perceptive and subtle man, we care for those HE cares for, we see the world through HIS eyes, we trust who HE trusts, and if he is mistaken in his trust it hurts US, we too feel the betrayal. He is a kind of moral touchstone. Weirdly, very very weirdly Shardlake reminds me of Jane Eyre – in that, here we have a person who can look at themselves clear, a person that others see as having fine judgement, a person of intelligence and integrity.

I must admit it took me an age to read this 600 page book, simply because I found my level of anxiety and unease too high to sit with – the painting of that world 5 centuries ago rendered close and very scary indeed.

The Family of Henry VIII, c. 1543-1547. Unknown artist, after Holbein. Hampton Court Palace.

The Family of Henry VIII, c. 1543-1547. Unknown artist, after Holbein.
Hampton Court Palace.

‘Lamentation’ the title of the book refers to a very dangerous pamphlet, a kind of religious confessional, written by Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, which has gone missing. The Queen’s faith is a little too radical/reformist compared to what Henry is now professing, as he is beginning to lean towards a more traditionalist, Catholic stance, as regards belief about the Mass. Along with the investigations and schisms in Court, between King’s party and Queen’s party, Shardlake also has private investigations, particularly the difficult case of a brother and sister, one a religious reformist, one a traditionalist, with a deep enmity between them, and a hidden secret, implacably fighting each other over a will which has been designed to foster their personal enmity. Fiction and fact, private individual and the larger stage of known, powerful, historical men and women, are woven together most skilfully.

Tremendous, absorbing, and very chilling. Particularly when we too could be said to live in ‘interesting times’, where, to quote a well known line from a poem by W.B. Yeats – ‘the best lack all conviction, whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity’ – fervent, implacable ideas of right and wrong, MY right, YOUR wrong, stalk the land.

I finished this caught up in a huge roller-coaster of emotions, feeling both relief and sansomsorrow, and thinking about certain ambiguities. Who knows.

There is also a very useful laying out of historical fact, and also historical conjecture, by Sansom, at the end of the novel

I received this as a review copy from the publishers, Mulholland Press

And a special thanks to FictionFan, whose fine review made me say ‘oh yes!’ and go got this. She also ticks the box in the PopSugar challenge, big time ‘a book recommended by a friend’ 5 star bingo!

Lamentation Amazon UK
Lamentation Amazon USA