Tuesday 10 May 2022

A Discovering Diamonds Review of The Prisoner by Joan Fallon.

11th Century

Once again, I have the pleasure to submerge myself in 11th-century AndalucĂ­a; more specifically in the city of Malaqah. Ms Fallon is an excellent guide through the complexities of Moorish Spain, be it the cultural aspects, the tensions between the various faiths, or the political intrigue that killed off one khalifa after the other. 

The Prisoner opens with a scene that indicates the story will be primarily about the power struggles at the top. The young new khalifa, Hasan, has his younger brother arrested and thrown into a dungeon, there to slowly rot to death. Intriguing, but soon enough it becomes evident that the main plot centres round Salma, Simon, and their family. Salma is a female scribe, a Muslim woman who decades ago fled Qurtubah in the aftermath of civil war with a Christian monk, Simon. It is forbidden for a Christian man to wed a Muslim woman, but Simon loved Salma and so he officially converts, while clinging to his true faith in secret. 

Initially, things seem to go well. After years living out in the country, Salma and Simon arrive in Malaqah and are welcomed by Makoud, Salma’s cousin. Makoud is a recurring character in Ms Fallon’s series, an engaging and intelligent apothecary who lives with his two wives and four grown children in Malaqah. He is delighted that Salma and Simon now want to make their home in his city, and it is through his efforts that Salma and Simon find work at the library in Malaqah.

Salma and Simon have not travelled alone: they have two daughters, one who is safely married to a potter while their younger daughter desires to attend university.

In her various books about the period, Ms Fallon has repeatedly offered glimpses of a surprisingly modern life, a world where women could work as scribes or translators and even study to become lawyers or doctors. Still: a woman must accept that in some aspects her life is restricted. As a wife, she must obey her husband and has little recourse should he choose to abuse her—something Ms Fallon illustrates in The Prisoner.

Not everyone approves of women working outside their homes. The assistant librarian, Marwen, develops an intense dislike of Salma and will do anything to discredit her—or her family. So he starts snooping, and suddenly, Simon’s secret adherence to his Cristian faith can put all of them in danger. 

As always in Ms Fallon’s books, the setting is brought to vivid life, the historical details woven casually into the narrative. To me, the central storyline is that of Salma and Simon, and there are moments when I am not quite sure why Ms Fallon has included some of the other plot-lines,  as they contribute little to the main story. They do, however, offer insightful and educational glimpses into a distant past, reflecting not only Ms Fallon’s fascination with the period but also her expertise. 

For anyone interested in learning more about Moorish Spain, The Prisoner is an excellent and educational read.   

Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds 

© Anna Belfrage
 e-version reviewed

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