Monday 3 July 2017

A Discovered Diamond review of The Cavalier Historian by Dorinda Balchin

Amazon UK £0.99 £10.49

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17th century (English Civil War /Present day)

All fiction requires a reader to suspend disbelief: time-slip novels require the author to pull off a double bluff. This, Dorinda Balchin has achieved in Cavalier Historian. But the novel is more than a time-slip - taking a man working on a very contemporary ‘historic house’ project back to the seventeenth century – it is also multi-layered, well-researched historical fiction involving a war story, a coming-of-age story, a ghost story, a romance, and witchcraft.

The novel opens in the present day with Rob Hardwick being employed to develop a themed Civil War tourist attraction. Waking in the old house in the middle of the night, he sees a malevolent ghost, who haunts him and the house with evil intent for the rest of the story. We then learn Rob’s ancestors lived here and that there was a tragic romance between the second son, Simon, and local girl, Rebekah. Rob then thinks he dreams he is this second son, and the time-slip device takes him back to the 1640s, where he is young Simon writing a diary about the events of the war period. These ‘dreams’ become more and more disturbing and distressing as Rob/Simon is taken into the war itself, travelling to Colchester and Oxford with his father, Sir Thomas, and witnessing appalling scenes. Rob then begins to realise that the Rebekah he has met in nearby woods in the present is the Rebekah he has read about in a letter dated 1651 – a letter written by Simon to explain why he cannot marry her then hidden in the family Bible.

As a seventeenth century enthusiast and someone who has read Barbara Eskine’s Lady of Hay more than once, I began this novel anticipating a compelling story that would take me back in time. Unfortunately Balchin’s need to include all her research means the novel becomes unnecessarily long and sections of the story become overly didactic, slowing the pace to such an extent that when I was taken step by step through the causes, process and effects of the war, then the regicide itself, I literally lost the plot. The dialogue could have been sharpened as characters speak in measured tones for the most part; and the narrative itself would have benefited by a dispassionate editor’s surgical knife  (in one paragraph I counted six repetitions of ‘he had’.)

The lack of editing is a tremendous shame for this is an ambitious novel with everything going for it – except the pace. Ultimately, though, I believe it is an accurate account of what life was like in rural areas for the lesser aristocracy in mid-seventeenth century England, and if you enjoy time-slip stories, this period of English history, are eager to know the facts - plus enjoy the fictional element of superstition and the time-honoured time-slip plot-line, then this novel is worth reading.

© J.G. Harlond

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