This is a beautifully told tale of love, loyalty and rivalry set in late 16th century Scotland. Based on the Border Ballad, Fair Helen of Kirconnel Lea, this novel tells the story of what has been called Scotland's Romeo and Juliet, through the eyes of someone who was an observer of events as they unfolded.
Retelling the story of the most memorable days of his life, the narrator, now in his seventies, looks back on the events of his youth - the family rivalries of the Scottish Borders, the kye (cattle) rustling, the jockeying for political and family favour, the passions, loves and regrets of his life.
The story flows very well, building up in intensity nicely towards the end, and I found myself happily immersed in Scotland in the days of James VI, or Jamie Saxt, for a few pleasant hours. I supect I would not have enjoyed it there, then, though...
Andrew Greig uses Scottish words fairly frequently throughout the book -this really helps with the atmosphere of the tale and if you are Scottish you will have no problem - if not there is a helpful glossary at the end of the book, though most of the words come to mind fairly intuitively without that.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was sad to have turned the last page.
Oh blessings on Andrew Greig! He never disappoints this reader.
In Fair Helen he has gone for an old, or I should say, Auld Ballad, and expanded it. It is the tale of the borders, reivers, a couple of student friends in `Embra' in the 1590's, during the time `Jamie Saxt' is King of Scotland and the `Auld Hag' is dying on the throne of England. Meanwhile there are dark conflicts a-brewing between the Auld Religion and the Reformers. We are set for a fine tangle between Politics, Church, State, Ancient Enmities and Loyalties - and incandescent loves.
Adam Fleming, a heidsman's son son falls hard for Fair Helen, an Irvine, who is betrothed (against her wishes) to the powerful son of another clan. These are lawless times (when were they not). Fair Helen is the cousin of Harry Langton, the narrator, a poor scrivener and friend of the Fleming son, who becomes embroiled and a pawn in a deeper game than just that of taking care of his friend and his cousin.
What is new in this piece of writing from Grieg is that it is right in his heritage as a Scottish writer, and there is much which is in the vernacular. And a pretty muscular and rich vernacular it is too.
I made a big mistake in getting this on the Kindle, as the glossary is much less accessible than it would be in the paper book.
So I gave up and surrendered to working out the meanings and hoped I was not making too many mistakes!
But don't think Greig is just a folksy folky writer. He digs a rich seam of love requited and unrequited, filial duty, violence, and his central narrator, our poor scrivener, is deliciously dry, and wry, particularly in his footnotes (reasonably easily found on the Kindle without too much distraction). Not to mention battling with where loyalties lie and who can and who cannot be trusted
Add to the mix, violence, love, betrayal - and the satisfying appearance of a certain brown-eyed actor, just as you were getting a fleeting sense that some of the story was remarkably Prince of Denmark-ish, not to mention a less warm presence in the guise of an ancestor of the writer of Ivanhoe. And then we also have the judgements our scrivener, who loves the classics, has about the various Clan power struggles bearing a remarkable similarity to the City State wars of Ancient Greeks. A sense that the Borderers themselves are writ large, and mythic, and of the ancient lays as potent.
Greig, as ever, provides a treasure chest to ponder. And then there is his writing, layered, textured, snaggled with new-minted images.
There were so many places where I got caught by images, and fiddled with underlining passages of beauty and contemplation
So, here, on memory:
"Yet the dead return to us, no doubt, by night or by day, rising up from the rotted mulch of the years. Up from black oblivion they rise, catch fire and play across the surface of our minds, insubstantial, unignorable"
And this, following a bloody raid and ambush, with a final image which raised hairs on my neck, that poet's way of making images serve double purpose
"I had seen the gathering of a gang, now I witnessed its sundering. Many went their own way at Tinnis. It was dawn of the day by the old standing stone, cold and red-pink as lifeblood carried downriver"
I like the sonorous weight of Greig's prose, its economy, its variety, the darkness always waiting:
"She died around Candlemas on a quiet afternoon, her sister Ann and I present. Her breaths spaced wider. Her chest rose and fell minutely. Her jaw dropped. I heard that last breath go. Then there was but a shell and an open mouth, and within it darkness without end"
on 8 October 2013
I was inspired to purchase this on Kindle by reading a review in the Literary Review (which the publishers have yet to add to the complimentary comments from other press reviews on Amazon). It is, quite simply, one of the finest historical novels I have ever read. Wonderfully realized in both the place and time it describes, the 1590s in the lawless Borders, where blood feuds going back generations are still rife, it has great literary merit without sacrificing historical accuracy. It describes a cruel and violent period with lyricism that is often moving and is utterly compelling from the first page. I can't praise it too highly.
on 15 June 2016
I've admired Andrew's poetry and fiction writing for many years, but wasn't sure I'd enjoy this one. 'Historical Fiction' isn't usually my thing. But this is totally different. Andrew's writing is so skilful and poetic and, critically, he doesn't burden the reader with the usual 'tell' used by many other authors whose writing is set in other countries or other times, and who feel they really must over-explain idioms and customs and intersperse the narrative with history and language lessons. So, the story flows brilliantly and completely envelopes the reader. There are a few footnotes and a glossary, but really I used these as an extra treat at the end after I'd finished reading. I loved this book! The structure, the language, the lightness of touch, the drama and suspense. I'm sure that I'll reread it.