Saturday, April 07, 2007

Adventures in medieval castle building

Reay Tannahill, Having the Builders In. London: Headline Review, 2006. £17.99, ISBN 978-0755333042. 279pp.

I've decided to stop grousing about my pile of review books because, in all honesty, so far in 2007 the novels I've been asked to read have been much more enjoyable than ones I've picked up on my own. This novel, an example of the latter, was an exception.

If you're familiar with Reay Tannahill's serious biographical fiction (The Seventh Son, Fatal Majesty) or her sweeping romantic sagas (A Dark and Distant Shore, In Still and Stormy Waters, etc.), then prepare to be surprised. Having the Builders In is a lighthearted, witty account of one medieval family's personal experience with home renovation. Tannahill goes out of her way to make comparisons between the late 14th century and today plainly obvious, but the novel is no less amusing for it. As anyone who's ever arranged for an addition to their house knows, the process can be stressful. You have builders entering your home, disrupting your regular schedule, and creating a racket at ungodly hours. Not to mention the interminable delays, which make you regret that you're paying the workers by the hour; disputes between management and subcontractors; and fears that you may have underestimated the budget.

Dame Constance de Clair, the 39-year-old owner - in her son's name, of course - of Vine Regis, a castle in England's West Country at the end of Edward III's reign, has all these problems and more. With her husband dead and her son, Lord Gervase, content to let her do as she wishes, she craftily sees a way to add an extension to her property. She agrees to give money to the local church to endow a chapel (to house yet another holy relic) if Abbot Ralph lets her use stone from the abbey quarries in her home construction. Then Lady Susanna, her son's naïve, pretty 15-year-old betrothed, arrives on the scene, pouting at not being greeted more warmly at her new home. Lord Gervase, not exactly an attentive fiance anyway, heads to London to pay homage to the new boy king, Richard II -- leaving Constance to deal with Susanna and her penchant for embarrassing social blunders. The family's valuables are disappearing, and they wonder if the builders are to blame. The master mason in charge of the renovation continually argues with the castle steward about proper construction methods. And then there are the accidents. Is someone trying to sabotage the project?

All of the characters are delightful, from the overly eager-to-please Susanna (from whose viewpoint, for the most part, we see the story unfold) to secondary ones like Hamish MacLeod, the Scotsman taken prisoner by Constance's late husband many years before, but who liked Vine Regis so much he decided to remain on staff. It's hard not to feel for Susanna, having to deal with a future mother-in-law who thinks she's always right (and usually is) as well as Gervase's two young daughters, one of whom is a real brat. Susanna wishes to be treated like the future Lady of the Castle, and you can almost understand why she slyly hints to Abbot Ralph that Constance might be wanting to found a nunnery sometime soon (which isn't true at all, but it makes for a very funny scene). Meanwhile, readers will get a real education in medieval castle building, and it's a fairly sophisticated process.

This isn't a long novel, but it's a fast-paced, lively read with a pleasantly unexpected ending. Give this a try if you've been reading serious historicals for a while and are in the mood for something different.


  1. This is on my wish list!

  2. Oh, I've just finished this! I enjoyed it, but not as much as I thought I would. It's light and easy to read and great fun, but somehow the characters didn't grab me, except maybe for Susanna - I didn't like Constance much, and I found Gervase pretty irritating. But overall, definitely worth reading, and I do love the idea of a 'medieval comedy'!

  3. Glad you liked it too. I really liked Hamish, who seemed very deliberately the brawny Highlander stereotype with a garrulous tongue and a large extended family. Gervase seemed like the straight man in a household full of comedic actors, and completely unaware of it besides. I agree though, Constance could be irritating.

  4. Sounds like fun! I LOVE Reay Tannahill's books, especially The World, The Flesh and the Devil - this one sounds like its antithesis! Will have to look out for it :)

  5. Sounds like fun and a nice contrast to Edith Pargeter's presentation of 'building in the Middle Ages'.

  6. I will read this novel which sounds interesting,


    Tangled Hearts by Rosemary Morris
    Engspiren Press

    A romantic novel set in the reign of Queen Anne

  7. Seven out of ten from me on this one.
    I enjoyed meeting the characters who were delightful, and the pages turned easily. However, I felt that the author was never quite sure where the novel was going. Constance is billed as the heroine, but Susannah her daughter in law hijacks the starring role and seems to be given more time on stage. Piers is never more than a faint pastel sketch (even though a delightful one). There's a hotchpotch of romance and medieval mystery but the latter feels as if it's been included as an obligatory nod to the popularity of that particular genre and it's almost like a badly tacked on extension. Superficially the research and the medieval mindset are excellent, although occasional info-dumps rather clumsily woven into the fabric of the narrative made me think that the author had read Sheila Sancha's Castle Story and just regurgitated it into the story. I never got the feeling that these were real Medieval people. Sure they are very good actors with a terrific stage setting, but somehow despite all that they still came over as modern people in fancy dress - good quality fancy dress, but fancy dress all the same. I suppose my end opinion would be that the book is rather like it's cover. A pretty pastel cariacature.

  8. Thanks for your perspective, Elizabeth. It did surprise me to have most of the novel seen from Susanna's viewpoint - made me wonder if the person who wrote the jacket blurb hadn't read the novel. It was rather frothy in places, but I think it was what I needed to read at the time!