Monday 17 February 2020

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick Reviewed by: Helen Hollick

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

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"It is the minute detail that Ms Chadwick so excels in that brings the story and her characters to life"

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Biographical fiction / romance
Ireland, England, Wales

"Aoife MacMurchada is just 14 years old when her father Diarmit, King of Leinster, is brutally deposed, and her family is forced to flee Southern Ireland into English exile. Diarmit seeks help from King Henry II, an alliance that leads him to the charismatic Richard de Clare, lord of Striguil, a man dissatisfied with his lot and open to new horizons. Diarmit promises Richard wealth, lands, and Aoife's hand in marriage in return for his aid, but Aoife, has her own thoughts on the matter. She may be a prize, but she is not a pawn and she will play the game to her own advantage. From the royal halls of scheming kings, to staunch Welsh border fortresses and across storm-tossed seas to the wild green kingdoms of Ireland, The Irish Princess is a sumptuous, journey of ambition and desire, love and loss, heartbreak and survival."

Yes, the names of the characters are difficult for non-Irish speakers to get their tongues and heads around; yes Aoife MacMurchada is a princess few people outside (even inside!) Ireland have heard of  - but yes, this is an absorbing and brilliantly written novel. Although few readers of historical fiction would expect anything less of Ms. Chadwick.

It is the minute detail that Ms Chadwick so excels in that brings the story and her characters to life, and not just the detail of the meticulous research that goes to form the framework of the history itself. The little human things like a little girl contemplating whether to wet the bed and put up with the result or braving the cold outside to use the chamber pot, her hiding beneath her father's chair and falling asleep in the folds of his long cloak. The grief at the loss of a loved kindred, the patting of a foal, the gazing into the fog - a fog which echoes the inability to see what lies ahead when a new king comes to the throne. Especially when that king happens to be the volatile Henry fitzEmpress - Henry II.

I suppose I have to say something critical (with difficulty for there is little to criticise.) There are scenes of violence that could be a little disturbing to some readers - these were violent times, after all. No spoilers, but hostages were taken for a reason in the twelfth-century political and military turbulence, and unfortunately these hostages often suffered the consequences. Some scenes are also slightly sexually explicit - but for both these comments I stress this is an adult book about adults doing adult things and written for adults to read.

Maybe the book is more 'romance' than some of Ms Chadwick's other novels? (The Eleanor of Aquitaine Trilogy and the William Marshal series for instance). Was Aoife a little too spoiled as a child, a bit precocious perhaps? But then you could say that about the majority of heroines (and heroes). As in the fashion of most biographical historical fiction of this nature the time-span jumps quite a bit; one chapter depicts one particular week or day, then the next shows a glimpse of the next event of note, hopping from one season or year to another for a snippet of  the lives of these people who once lived, loved, fought and died. But these were complex times and complex characters, and historical novels of this kind are not meant to be linear stories of the day-by-day minutiae of life.

Ms Chadwick skilfully shows us these glimpses, not as a blow-by-blow (somewhat tedious) memoir, but as if we were time-travellers popping back every so often to watch, quietly and secretly from the shadows, the events of the past.

I loved it.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Helen Hollick

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