Thursday, 27 February 2014

Twins reviewed by Carol McGrath

Twins by Katherine Pym
Reviewed by Carol McGrath

England in 1660 was on the cusp of change. There had been a vicious civil war and a period of repressive Commonwealth before, finally, the return of the English monarchy. With this event comes uncertainty, changes of allegiance, expanding commercialisation and the dawning of capitalism as we understand it now. Restoration London is the city of Samuel Pepys but it is also the predominant setting for Twins by Katherine Pym.

Whilst people in the seventeenth century were edging towards the era of enlightenment, individualism and new scientific understanding, many, especially in the countryside, clung to older superstitions. One such was that twins must be conceived of the seed of two fathers and as a consequence the assumption prevailed that the mother had been unfaithful to her husband. The consequences could be dire. Therefore, when Elizabeth Torbett gives birth to twins she leaves Worcester to seek refuge with her cruel brother in London. The story begins and what a terrific narrative this is.

The narrative follows the independent and distinctive fortunes of brother and sister, Emma and Edgar. It contains everything, every ingredient that is excellent in a riveting historical novel. It has pace, one that will leave the reader breathless as he or she hurtles from episode to episode hoping that these protagonists, down on their luck, seemingly witness things improve only for the wheel of fortune to turn against them over and over again. This is a clever narrative, a tour de force, suitably reminiscent of Pamela by Samuel Richardson or Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, novels written close enough to this period.

Emma is thrust into a horrific marriage to a country squire, a widower, only to find that she is to live in a hovel of a farmhouse and tend to his unfortunate children. There is yet another twist of fate here which is shocking, as well as characters driving the events, steeped in deception. Enough to say that this part of the book frightened me witless and all I wanted was for Emma to be safe. When she does eventually return to London she is destitute and faces many more interlinked misfortunes in this city familiar to us though the exploits of Nell Gwyn, a city of rogues, swindlers, newly-opened theatres, coffee houses, cutpurses and molls and a city bubbling with anticipation for the coronation of Charles II. It is also a city confused by religious alliance and one where men and women looking for the best advantage often swing their religious adherence to and fro like pendulums.

Edgar, married to a wife he cannot love, is trained by his uncle to participate in the family business and as a consequence is sent to sea to purchase silks and spices in a not-terrifically seaworthy ship partially owned by this uncle. As the vessel enters the Straits of Gibraltar, Edgar is involved in a fabulous sea fight in which he proves himself to be courageous and very astute. Enough said again, but though the fight itself is thrilling, importantly, it leads to other revelations. Everything is not as it seems. The reader is hurtled from event to event, scene to scene, revelation to revelation at a breathtaking pace.

I particularly liked Pym’s characterisation. Her protagonists are very sympathetic and her rogues a nightmare. I would not like to run into any of them on a foggy night in a 1660s London alleyway. Pym’s technique is to be commended as she moves Emma’s story forward only to stop with a cliff-hanger. She gives Edgar’s story the same page-turning treatment. Pym also, sensibly, adheres to the point of view of the pair so that, considering the many events and characters within the novel’s pages readers are never lost. Though there is a gallery of characters, they are all memorably and vividly portrayed, even the downtrodden mother who finds her voice as the story progresses.

Love is difficult in such harsh times but by the end of the novel it triumphs. The novel has a deeply satisfying ending. I must note that the background to this book is well-researched and the research translates well into the fiction. I learned many things about Restoration London I had not thought about before: funerals, weddings, suppers, life on a trading vessel and little details such as how the coffee was brewed in the coffee houses. I can still smell the extravagant dinners, spy on court life at Westminster which is depicted in a very authentic and gritty manner, and I can get a whiff of the steaming ale house pasties. I leave the novel with a sense of the docks, the warehouses and I know what it was like to sail into the unknown in a ship that is swarming with vermin and with ruthless seamen.

I am in two minds about Katherine Pym’s treatment of language. She uses the cadences of Restoration London, those familiar to readers of Restoration drama. On the one hand this can often be poetic in her work and deepen its sense of period. On the other it can make the novel feel a little alien and a little distancing. Yet, I, personally, liked the style for its originality. It certainly never took away from my enjoyment of this unusual and engaging tale. Twins is a great read and a masterful accomplishment.

Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife, first in a trilogy, The Daughters of Hastings, published by Accent Press in 2013. She can be found her website.

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  1. Carol your review has compelled me to place this book on my TBR list near the top.

  2. A beautifully written review, Carol. Thank you. Twins onto the TBR pile...

  3. Fantastic review!

  4. A fascinating period, and what sounds - from this first-class review - a really enjoyable novel!

  5. Thank you re the review and to Katherine for the tour de force great read.