Friday 22 March 2019

The Girl From Oto by Amy Maroney

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

"This is skilful story-telling at its very best. There are so many strands to the tale, with many hints carefully dropped in along the way."

The Miramond Series #1 

Fictional Saga

fifteenth century / 21st century

In fifteenth-century Spain, a noblewoman gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl. A wise woman helps her, taking the girl away to safety in a convent. In twenty-first-century England, an art historian is attempting to discover the true identity of a portrait painter. How are the two events connected?

This is a dual timeline novel and some reviewers have said that the historical scenes work better than the present-day scenes. At first, this may be true but, after I'd finished the book, the modern-day characters stayed with me for just as long. However, let's rewind. 

It soon becomes clear that the girl in the monastery and the portrait painter are one and the same, but that's not a spoiler, because almost to the last, we don't know how all this came to be. Mira, the young girl, grows up in the convent, and whilst others learn her identity, she initially does not. The Spanish part of the story is told from various points of view - that of Mira herself, of the abbess, of Mira's parents, and of a rich merchant, whose family have something to do with the story, but quite what, we don't immediately learn. Nor do we learn for quite some time just why Mira was sent away - this part of the story is revealed slowly, and is all the better for it. 

This is skilful story-telling at its very best. There are so many strands to the tale, with many hints carefully dropped in along the way. I hoped desperately that all would become clear, that the strands would tie themselves together, and they did: the role of the merchant family, the history behind the paintings and the origins of their wooden panels, the brutality of Mira's birth family, the reason for her being sent away. Despite the fact that this is one of a series, the loose ends all come together satisfyingly, so it can definitely be read as a standalone. You can choose to revisit these characters, or not. That in itself is the mark of an excellent book. There is a great little reveal, too: Ramon, Mira's father, beats any servant who dares approach him from the left. One assumes this is just a device to demonstrate his temper, but even this fairly minor detail is explained towards the end of the book.

The plotting is intricate, masterfully worked out, and the pacing is superb. That's not to say it's a fast read; there are many scenes where one can enjoy a lingering look at the expertly-described scenery, watch the local mountain people celebrating, and enjoy the burgeoning romance of the modern-day protagonist, Zari, as she tries to combine her professional and personal lives.

The author is American, yet chooses to use vocabulary which English readers will find familiar, so the modern day characters use mobiles rather than cell phones, for example. 

To the very last pages, I was unsure how the story would 'pan out' and I found myself saying 'aha' out loud as little hints dropped into the earlier chapters suddenly made sense, and I was genuinely impressed with how the author put all the strands of her detailed plot together. In the closing chapters, a family scene could so easily have been drawn with cliche and assumed responses. Yet the author directs the scene differently and the reactions of the characters, at first surprising, become all too real. To say more would be a spoiler.

The concept of the novel, of modern-day characters researching a story from the past, is not a new one, but it really works. I was fascinated by the historical sections. The Girl from Oto might have worked as a straight-forward historical novel, but the modern-day scenes added to a sense that so much of history is lost to us, and sometimes we just have a tantalising glimpse of a lost world. The fact that Zari literally walks over the same terrain that Mira has walked before her adds a poignancy to the tale.

© Annie Whitehead

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