Friday, 17 May 2013

Honour and the Sword - A.L. Berridge

(Penguin, 2011, 544 pages, ISBN 9780141043739)

It’s the summer of 1636, and the bloody Thirty Years War spills into Picardy as the Spanish armies begin their latest campaign against France. In their path lies the village of Dax-en-roi, whose Seigneur, the Chevalier de Roland, makes a valiant stand against the invaders, but to no avail. Only one person escapes the destruction of the de Roland home. Twelve-year-old André de Roland refuses to leave his parents unavenged and his people subject to a brutal occupation. He is only a boy, and many question what he can do. But André is driven by a sense of justice stronger than doubt. He will defend his honour and his people – to the end.

This is the first novel featuring André de Roland. Somewhat unusually, the story excludes his point of view almost entirely and comprises instead of multiple first person narratives by those close to him. I knew about this before I read the novel and was intrigued to see how well it worked; the answer is, very effectively. We’re made aware at the start that these narratives are part of a series of accounts collected in 1669 by the Abbé Fleuriot, who is composing the history of André’s life. Because of this the heading of each section with the narrator’s name never felt intrusive, as it has in some novels I’ve read. Although these headings are useful, it’s almost always possible to tell who’s speaking without them – I’ve remarked before on the author’s skill at creating distinct narrative voices, and that skill, that ability to draw out numerous different strands of register, is apparent again here. The novel has something of a British flavour despite being set in France, but that never bothered me, and the characters themselves are universal in their appeal. Each and every one of them feels real, not least André, even though we only ever see him through others’ eyes. This is one of the great strengths of the multiple first person narratives, in fact: we get to see both André and his companions from many viewpoints, viewpoints that don’t always agree; and that goes toward creating complex, rounded characters whose relationships to each other aren’t always what they seem, even to the narrators themselves. A.L. Berridge is very good at showing the sense of loyalty and the deep friendships that form within a tight-knit group under threat. And it was refreshing to be reminded that good and bad existed on both sides.

The book rattles along at a fine pace as André and his friends nag away at the Spanish armies, meaning it’s difficult to put down.  The choice of narrators at any particular moment added a great deal of tension, since not everyone is in the know about what’s going on, and as with the characterisation, the changing narratives allow different perspectives on events that throw them into relief and give greater depth to the plot. Although about war, this isn't a grim book, and the action, lightness of touch in the narration, and frequent surfacing of humour means it's a lively read.  

I didn’t really know anything much about the Thirty Years War before I started this novel, but I finished it with a much greater awareness of the people, places and events involved. These are woven well into the fabric of the story, often without explanation since the characters, of course, are familiar with them; but the accounts given to the Abbé are framed by notes and observations by their ‘translator’, Edward Morton, which allows everything to be set in context and explained with ease. I had to go and look up some of the terminology regarding weapons and warfare – in particular fencing, for which A.L Berridge’s passion is evident – but this didn’t disrupt my reading, and the author helpfully provides a lot of background information on her website. A map at the front of the book shows Dax-en-roi and the surrounding area.

Powerful story of friendship and honour set during the Thirty Years War.