Fictional Drama/short stories
14th Century/ 16th Century
The Swan Diptych consists of two stories, set in Lincoln in the 14th century and Cambridge in the 16th, linked by swans and by themes of human arrogance and pride. There is no doubt that Ian Thomson uses words and language with skill. The reader is immersed in the settings; in the sights and sounds and smells, and in this lies his greatest strength as a writer.
The first story, How the Dean Angered the Swans, is a cautionary tale best described as magic realism. Much of the story is told in the manner of a fable or a folk tale; I could imagine listening to it in front of a fire, captivated by the descriptions and history that unfolds. Thomson uses narrative effectively in this story, painting the picture of the city and of its people, who are awaiting the arrival of Richard II on an official visit, in a way that evoked, for me, a Brueghel painting. Whether this scene-setting goes on too long is a matter of taste.
The events of the story are both amusing and instructive, as a fable is meant to be, revealing the ridiculous excesses of some powerful churchmen, and with an underlying message about human folly and the hubris of setting man above nature. Unusual and charming, I thoroughly enjoyed this first story.
The Patronal Feast is a longer story, at its centre a murder mystery that reminded me to some extent of The Name of the Rose. Given dispensation by Richard II to serve a roast swan at the yearly dinner commemorating the patronal saint of a Cambridge college, the preparations for that dinner provide the framework for both the crime and the intrigue and secrets behind it.
Here the author’s reliance on narrative is less effective in conveying the story, although he still creates an immersive setting. When a continental scholar and polymath is asked to solve the murder of a young and noble scholar at St. Stephen’s college, his analysis is given by letter – quite a long and detailed letter, presented to the reader without very little reaction or comment from its recipient. The backstory contained in the letter is important; the method of relating it may overwhelm the reader.
Like the first story, The Patronal Feast looks at how at least some of the seven deadly sins impinge on human behaviour, even among those meant to be above such human frailties. Both stories are imagined history, but How the Dean Angered the Swans was, for me, a more satisfying and readable story than The Patronal Feast.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Marian L Thorpe