Nicholas is an upright fellow with serious responsibilities, but he loves his children dearly. He’s also an expert in the book business and happily shares his knowledge about quality parchments, manuscript illumination, and smart sales techniques. He’s an inexperienced investigator, though. While some of the scrapes he gets into are very funny, others pose needlessly dangerous risks to himself and his family. He’s aided in his search for justice by his friend Jordain Brinkylsworth, Warden of Hart Hall, where William had lived. Swinfen illustrates merchant and university life in medieval Oxfordshire with a sure hand, and she gives Nicholas an intriguing backstory: he had left the celibate life of a scholar behind to marry a “shopkeeper’s wench,” his late wife, Elizabeth. Despite her early death and the resentment of some at the university, he doesn’t regret his decision. I wish this series a long and successful life.
Set between the 1920s and 2006, The Secret Children (Orion, 2012) is a gripping novel of survival and the struggle for self-determination that also poses thoughtful questions on the meaning of home. The girls find a few allies as they become young women, and despite his despicable behavior and cowardice, their father, James, is hardly a caricature; he loves them both, but knowledge of their existence would damage his career. Alison McQueen based this work, her first historical novel, on events from her mother’s past, and you can read more in a piece she wrote for the Guardian. I’ve been following the television drama Indian Summers and found this “readalike” novel equally gripping.
The novel swirls with family stories and reads like you’re hearing anecdote after entertaining anecdote passionately retold by a talented storyteller. The narrator is Gabriela Siton, Luna’s daughter, who asks her Nona Rosa and her Tia Allegra, her grandfather’s sister, to tell her about her family’s history. Maybe then she’d learn why Luna, who died when Gabriela was eighteen, had always seemed so cold and spiteful. The jacket blurb mentions a “family curse” that links the women, since they’ve been destined to marry men who don’t love them. There’s nothing supernatural about it, though, and each woman’s story is different. Her two sisters are wonderful people, but Luna’s story is among the most poignant. She may not be likeable, but in the end, I felt like I understood her.