Wednesday 21 April 2021

A Wider World by Karen Heenan

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

"Memories are all he has… Now they could save his life. Returning to England after almost five years in exile, Robin Lewis is arrested and charged with heresy by the dying Queen Mary. As he is escorted to the Tower of London, Robin spins a tale for his captor, revisiting his life under three Tudor monarchs and wondering how he will be judged—not just by the queen, but by the God he stopped serving long ago. When every moment counts, will his stories last long enough for him to be saved by Mary's heir, the young Queen Elizabeth?"

A Wider World tells the story of Robin Lewis, who features in the author's debut novel, Songbird. That novel centres around Bess and her childhood friend Tom, but this new book gives us Robin's story both before and after his life coincided with theirs. I'm happy to say that Bess and Tom do make an appearance, but this is Robin's tale, and he's the one telling it. 

I liked the structure of the book especially. We go back and forth between Robin in the present, as an older man, and Robin in his youth. Once you've been drawn into the two timelines, it is beautifully revealed that it was not the author's idea to present the story this way, but Robin's himself. And, there's a very good reason why he's doing it, too. I won't say more because it would be a bit of a spoiler.

The skilful presentation of the story is not all down to Robin, though, for Ms Heenan is a natural storyteller, writing scenes which have perfect shape and pace. She has a great way of using first-person narrative so that we see through Robin's eyes. There's actually very little use of the personal pronoun 'I' which means that we are not watching him, we are seeing what he sees.  

And what we see is a wonderfully realistic Tudor world. The author's research was clearly diligent but it sits lightly on the page and there is masterful and delicate placing of information, for example when Robin pinches his candle and puts it in his satchel when he has finished his work. There is no need to tell us that folk carried their own candles from place to place; that one tiny action revealed the fact. 

Ms Heenan is an American and uses US spellings which I don't mind at all because, and here's the crucial thing, her characters inhabit their Tudor world absolutely and the dialogue is spot on. Robin thinks, acts and speaks like a Tudor Englishman and he is so very real. He is a man of faith; prayer restores him. Though raised a Catholic, as were all of his generation, he sees the merits of some of the Lutheran ideas. And we see how often even those who were drawn to the new faith took comfort in the old. 

Just as with Songbird, we see the workings of the court but the main characters are not the historical figures. It was fascinating to see how the offices of the likes of Cromwell operated. And we are shown very clearly how the decisions, especially of the capricious Tudor monarchs, affected the lives of the ordinary people and in particular the fate of the monks who were turned out of the dissolved monasteries. That said, there are also moments of great commentary about the more famous history: something I'd not thought about before was that, in bringing Anne of Cleves to Henry, Cromwell held up a mirror to the ageing king, showing him a suitable bride for a man of his years, failing health and looks. And Henry didn't like it. 

The author has a lovely economy of words which nevertheless conveys a whole picture. Robin staggers slightly on the solid ground when disembarking from the ship and we know exactly what she means. A monk hugs him but wraps his hands round Robin's midriff while Robin places his chin on top of the monk's head and thus we know the difference in the men's heights. Other phrases made me smile: when Robin describes a young girl as being 'refreshing' the reply comes from her grandmother, 'Like cold water to the face.' When he's drunk, Ned falls across the bed 'like a tree', which perfectly describes the motion. Ned is Robin's friend and, in fact, is such a well-drawn character generally. A scene where he finds a borrowed shirt of Robin's which he'd forgotten to give back was a lovely vignette which summed him up and made me smile in affection for him, despite his questionable habits! In fact, Ned is such a rounded character that his older self is changed, but also recognisable as the man he once was.
Another constant in Robin's life is his manservant, Seb, who also grows up and older as the novel progresses. Towards the end there is a lovely scene where Seb goes off 'muttering' and we know exactly how he is feeling because we've spent so much time with him. (I won't say why he was muttering - that'd be another spoiler.) 

In Songbird, Robin was introduced as quite a prickly, unpopular character, who developed and grew and managed to make friends. But here we discover that he doesn't understand why people love/are interested in him. He knows he's stand-offish and so he thinks no one should like him but he forgets about his vulnerable side and that others can see it. There is a joy in watching him as he learns to accept that people love him and towards the end of the book there is a  jokey discussion about getting rid of Robin's beard. Again, no spoilers, but in that small moment Robin is super-aware that he's not alone and never has been. It is quite a skill to present a character in a first-person narrative and yet allow the reader, through that character, to see him as others do. Songbird was a confident and excellent debut and now Ms Heenan goes from strength to strength with this new book. There is a third book in the offing and I am very much looking forward to reading it.

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Annie Whitehead
Discovering Diamonds Senior Reviewer

 e-version reviewed

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