The Sinner's Tale
Just to set expectations at the right level, this is not a romance. There is a female protagonist, and a male protagonist, but they live six hundred years apart. Never mind about that female for now; let’s talk about the male, because he owns this story.
Sir Guy de Bryan is a confidant of King Edward III, trusted to the point of being sent on a diplomatic mission to Italy to fix things with the king’s bankers. He’s not especially eager to leave his home at Slapton; not only is it close to winter, when the Alpine pass to Italy will be nearly impassable, but he’s just finishing his chantry, where he’s endowed several monks to sing the mass for his soul for all eternity. Guy feels his sins heavily across his shoulders as the years go by, and fears not only for his soul, but for his late wife’s soul as well – one of his sins involved her. But the king commands, so Guy goes, along with his former comrade-in-arms turned priest, William Batokeway, some trusted archers, a handful of snotty Italian officials, and an inquisitive squire named Geoffrey.
The journey is long and hard, a roundabout track designed not to let anyone know their destination. On the voyage up-Channel into a down-Channel gale, the squire persuades Guy to share some of his many experiences as the king’s man. From his chance encounter with the young King Edward III in 1327 fighting Robert Bruce’s Scots, through the battles of Sluys and Crecy and Poitiers, Guy tells of a life spent mostly at war. His sins? All too human. His regrets? Unfathomable. Guy stops his entourage at every chapel and cathedral they pass, to pray and obtain certificates freeing him from time in Purgatory, despite the rather blasphemous assurances of the priest, William, that no piece of paper is going to matter in the hereafter. Guy does not feel he can take chances, when his immortal soul – to say nothing of his beloved wife’s – is at risk.
Beth Battock is a rising star in modern-day British politics. An advisor to a junior minister in the Foreign Office, Beth has gotten herself and her boss noticed with her call to arms against terrorism, exhorting England to follow America’s lead and smite the enemies before they have a chance to smite you. But on her return from a trip to New York, she learns her boss has just resigned in a scandal, and now the press has found out that Beth was sleeping with him. Told to disappear for a few days if she wants anything resembling a career, Beth grudgingly returns home to Slapton, the tiny village where she grew up, and to the father and grandmother she kept secret from everyone in London. Among other family secrets, she’s appalled to learn that they expect her to keep up the Battock (from Batokeway) family tradition, some six hundred years old: singing a mass for Sir Guy de Bryan in the crumbling chantry tower on St. Petronella’s Day.
Guy earns this book its DIK status. His story absolutely leaps to life, medieval life, love, and war without any patina of glory or romance. There is exultation in his youthful encounters with the king, when Edward laughs at his joke and calls him friend; horror at the way besieged armies treat their own citizens, casting out the weakest among them and leaving them to starve; and heartbreak when Guy sees the love of his life married to another man as the prize in a joust. War is not glorious to Guy. It is a muddy, hungry, horrifying business, where acts of unparalleled bravery and courage are met with brutal slaughter. If his sins seem less than mortal to modern eyes, his penitence is real, and moving. Some might say he’s a little too good to be true, but I would say he is what a mature, seasoned man in his position should be: honest, forthright, courageous, and decent, aware of his own faults as well as those of others. And no matter what your politics, I defy you to reach the end of this book, and read Guy’s final Declaration carved for his chantry, and not feel the sorrow and anguish of a man who lived his life making war, but only when he could not make peace.
As for Beth, well, she’s ambitious and impatient, willing to overspend on her charge card and have an affair with her boss. She’s a thoroughly modern girl who doesn’t give a damn what her family’s been doing for six hundred years. She hates Slapton, couldn’t wait to shake its dust from her feet, and only returns because she has no where else to go. Her dislike of the whole place is only amplified when she runs into Lewis, a boy she knew from primary school. Lewis was just as smart as she was, did just as well in school as she did, even stole her young heart. She expected him to do so much more with his life than he has. Lewis came home to work with stone, repairing and replacing crumbled carvings from the Slapton chantry, including one old broken stone tablet carved with Guy de Bryan’s Declaration. Her obsession with achievement over fulfillment and happiness was almost uncomfortable to read, not because it made her unique but because it made her common. A lot happens to Beth in her time at Slapton, prying her old life away an inch at a time as she’s forced to confront what she really feels versus what she thinks she wants. Her epiphany, such as it is, is pretty much forced on her.
There’s yet a third story in the book, that of the rehearsal for D-Day conducted at Slapton in 1944, that revolves around Eliza, Beth’s grandmother, and has a much more immediate impact on Beth’s life than anything else. I very much liked Eliza and this bittersweet war story as well; it’s almost a romance. But this is Guy’s tale, first and foremost. He carried me spellbound through his entire narrative, all the more so for having been a real person (although considerably less documented than this). Drawn from historical record, this book weaves medieval history into modern life with a gilt thread. It’s the very sort of historical novel I simply adore, and I highly recommend it.