The Scarlet Pimpernel

Marguerite Blakeney is known as the most intelligent woman in all of Europe. Unfortunately in Revolutionary France she is also known as Marguerite St Just. She may be married to the English fop Sir Percy Blakeney, but her brother Armand St Just still lives in France, and has a dangerous connection to the elusive Scarlet Pimpernel – the English people-smuggler reviled by the new republican government of France for squirrelling away men, women and children otherwise destined for a swift death beneath the blade of the guillotine.

When Armand is unwittingly implicated in the Scarlet Pimpernel’s activities, the dastardly French ambassador Chauvelin approaches his sister with a devious attempt at blackmail. Chauvelin knows that if Armand moves in the same social circles as the Scarlet Pimpernel’s league of supporters, then Marguerite almost certainly does too – even if she isn’t aware of it. Desperate to save her brother she agrees to spy for Chauvelin, but what she finds out may lead to her own death, let alone the Scarlet Pimpernel’s.

The first book in Baroness Orczy’s series featuring her eighteenth-century Batman reads a bit like A Tale of Two Cities played for larks and derring-do. It starts with a good depiction of the insane mob-fury that gripped France during the Reign of Terror, though Baroness Orczy’s sympathies are obviously not with her one-dimensional Jacobins. Unfortunately, whilst A Tale of Two Cities and Les Miserables, the two pre-eminent stories about the French getting upset in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are also two of my favourite novels, this one doesn’t really stand up to any sort of comparison next to them.

After a fantastic first chapter, which could have gone on to form a story in itself, the novel slows right down. It’s short as it is, but it is also padded out. Baroness Orczy’s storytelling style amounts to belabouring the suspense to spell out what’s going to happen, then describing it happening, and after it’s happened, ruminating on what’s just happened. It’s interesting as an adventure story driven by a morally complex female character who is romantic without being a fainting waif, but – spoiler alert – as such its title shouldn’t really be The Scarlet Pimpernel, it should be The Scarlet Pimpernel’s Wife.

Work in progress

It’s now been a couple of weeks since I put the finishing touches to my latest work in progress. I say ‘finishing touches’ but the process never ends, to be honest, and at some point it will be time to stop fiddling and tweaking and pick-pick-picking. Too many strokes spoil the painting, and all that. At the end of the day, it’s not going to be a comma (misplaced or otherwise) that decides its fate.

This one is quite different to anything else I’ve written in the last few years, being a fantasy story about Scottish clans and past lives. Like many ideas, it was born of two separate half-ideas (one of which first came to me many years ago) clashing and fusing into a whole. And like many ideas, that creative nuclear fusion happened whilst I was sitting on a commuter train trundling through Essex. I don’t do that any more, but fortunately it’s not had a detrimental effect on the flow of fresh ideas so far.

Though this isn’t the first time I’ve headed a blog entry with ‘Work in progress’. Just under a year ago I wrote about finishing another project I felt very happy with. I’m still very happy with it today, but it will never be published. I submitted it to a handful of literary agents and several asked to read it, but ultimately each had a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why they didn’t think it would sell. I couldn’t disagree with the last one, actually, and so didn’t submit it to anyone else afterwards.

So Papercut, the story of the aftermath of a stabbing from the perspective of a teenage boy, becomes the one that got away. But it’s not the only one that did that. Other books (non-fiction about pirates, a general maritime history for kids, and a disgusting food cookbook) have all fallen by the wayside at one stage or another. Yet my page on Amazon makes it look like I write one book a year, and have no trouble getting published, whereas the truth is it’s always an uphill slog, and I have to start from the bottom each time.

It does make me wonder about other authors’ ones-that-got-away, though. And whether the rise in digital self-publishing will change that in future. And whether that would actually be a good thing, anyway.

The Shock of the Fall

“This is my life,” Matthew Homes writes, about a quarter of a way into The Shock of the Fall. “I’m nineteen years old, and the only thing I have any control over in my entire world is the way I choose to tell this story.” It reads like it could be the first line of the book, but this is a somewhat fragmentary novel where arguably there are several beginnings, and also several endings (that aren’t necessarily endings), and they don’t always come in the right order. Matthew has schizophrenia, and the novel consists of his attempts to tell his story – attempts interrupted by bouts of psychosis, periods on a psychiatric ward, and annoying people looking over his shoulder (who get told where to go in the middle of his writing).

This isn’t really a novel about schizophrenia, however, any more than it is a novel about Down’s Syndrome, just because Matthew’s late older brother Simon had Down’s. Simon died in a terrible accident when Matthew was too young to properly understand it, too young to understand it wasn’t really his fault. This is a novel about grief, as experienced, explored and articulated by someone with a unique, idiosyncratic perspective on the universe. Despite its fragmentary nature, jumping backwards and forwards in time, it is still quite easy to read (even if it is not so easy to think about), helped by Matthew’s sometimes innocent (sometimes not) sense of humour. Everything eventually comes together, shaping itself into a coherent whole.

I hadn’t heard of The Shock of the Fall until it won the Costa Book of the Year Award last week. That’s my own fault, really. When I reviewed new fiction for the Metro I struggled to find nice things to say about dull novels because I thought they deserved a fair shot at finding their intended reader, even if that wasn’t me. With a few exceptions, most of what was being churned out in the name of modern literature was insipid at best, and utterly irrelevant at worst. At least as far as books for adults are concerned, I have fallen into the habit of mainly reading older books, and expecting the best of the new to catch up with me in the future. Of course, that way, missing good novels like this one becomes not only easy but inevitable.

Despite its frequently funny narrator, I found it quite a sad and not particularly hopeful read, and its brief final chapter about coming to terms with loss arrives a little too late to change that impression (even if Nathan Filer couches the last chapter as a beginning rather than an ending). That aside, whilst I haven’t read the rest of the books nominated for the Costa award so can’t say whether this one deserved to win, it certainly deserves to be read.