Wednesday 20 June 2018

The Merest Loss by Steven Neil

AMAZON UK £2.99 £7.88
AMAZON US $4.29 $13.17

Biographical fiction 
1830s - 1860s
England / France

A young man, Martin, walks into the stable yard of Tom Olliver, a racehorse trainer and former jockey, asking for help in identifying his father. Then begins the true story of Harriet Howard, an original 'wild child' at school, a promising actress and a woman coerced into befriending and sponsoring the British Government's plans to support Louis Napoleon in his attempts to rule the French.

The love of Harriet's life is Jem Mason, a successful jockey, rival and friend of Olliver's. But Jem and Harriet's relationship is as stormy as it is passionate. Enter the villain of the piece, Nicholas Sly. His orders are to recruit Harriet for her role as courtesan. Harriet refuses, but suddenly there are no roles for her to play and Jem's career plunges as well. They split up and, following more threats from Sly, she agrees to do what she has been asked. In a very short space of time she acquires many lovers, at least five of whom might be the boy's father – for she never reveals who it is.

The majority of the book is written in the present tense, which I often find off-putting. However, in the hands Mr Neil it is easy to overcome such prejudice, for I found myself imagining that I was in a theatre, listening to an unseen narrator setting the scenes for the audience, whilst the players made their entrances to present the dialogue. And whilst the narration presents the facts in a simple, matter-of-fact style, there are moments of beautiful description.

In content, style and prose, I cannot find fault anywhere. Yet I have to make mention of a couple of things. Before I had even opened the book, I believed I was getting a Romance to read – a genre I admit that I am not enamoured of. The author no doubt has his reasons for the title (or did I miss something?) yet I feel that it is too nondescript nor memorable enough. The cover would be absolutely perfect for a book of a different genre for it is an excellent piece of work, even down to an accurate illustration of the Chateau de Beauregarde which was Harriet's  home – a gift from Louis Napoleon. Yet for me it does not  convey the political intrigue, the glitz of London and France, the evidence that mounts up  as Martin tries to uncover the mystery of his sire nor the thrill of the steeplechase so vividly described within the text.

Those small things aside, I thoroughly enjoyed every chapter of what I feel is a quite remarkable book with its unknown narrator and easy to read style. I believe Mr Neil has a good career in front of him.


© Richard Tearle

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