Checkmate by Dorothy Dunnett (1975)

When I reached the end of this book, the sixth and final volume of the Lymond Chronicles, I was emotionally drained and somewhat bereft, I had a head full of thoughts but little idea of what to say. I’m not sure that I have much more idea now, but I am going to start writing and see what happens.

I was lost not just because I had reached the end of a series of books, but because the world of that series of books was so vividly realised and the drama that was playing out in that world was so captivating that I have no choice by the be pulled right in; and because the depth and detail was such that I knew I hadn’t seen and understood everything. I will go back one day; I have known that for a long time, and my return became more and more certain.

This sixth book opens not long after the fifth book closed.

Lymond is in France, having been propelled their not by his own wish but by the wishes of friends who knew that the course he planned himself – a return to Russia – would inevitably lead to the destruction of his life. He was still set on that course, but the French were well aware of his talents and his value to them, and so a choice was set before him.

He could stay for one year in the service of France, after which he would be granted that annulment of his ‘marriage of convenience’ that he had been seeking for some time; and if he chose to reject that offer, the French would see that the annulment would never be granted.

He chose to stay.

This opening led into a glorious cavalcade of dramatic scenes; from a spooky and unsettling spell in the chamber of the Dame de Doubtance; to the unveiling of a character in disguise that I was so happy to see again; to a chase that echoed another in ‘Queens’ Play’ and that told me how far the characters had come and their relationships had evolved ….

I could go on, but I don’t want to say to much to anyone who is still on their journey through this series of books or to anyone who is contemplating starting that journey.

The time and place for this final act was perfectly chosen, and worked so well for those individual scenes and for the story as a whole. The court was preparing for the marriage of their Dauphin to Mary Queen of Scots – who had appeared as an infant in the very first book if this series – and the military was fending off the English, who were understandably concerned about the strengthening alliance between their neighbours to the south and to the north.

There are still two main strands to this story; two continuing quests:

  • Phillipa Somerville was still working to uncover and untangle the history of the Crawford family, in the belief that truth and honesty were always the best thing. The evidence that she uncovered seemed contradictory, a rational explanation seemed elusive, and she would be led to a very dark place that might destroy and would certainly damage her….
  • Meanwhile, Francis Crawford, continued to try to loosen the ties that bound him to others, to find his own place in the world, and was quite prepared – and quite willing – to die in the attempt rather than compromise. He found though that he had to do everything that he could for the people who loved and had served him, and that maybe there might be a way that he could do the right thing without having to break those ties ….

The evolution of these two complex and engaging characters over the course of six books – her from a child into a capable and accomplished young woman; and him on a journey far to difficult to neatly summarise – has been an utter delight.

Every significant character left alive was dawn into this final story. I found that I gained new understanding of some of them, that I wished to have seen rather more of certain others, and that there were one or two who were compromised just a little to allow the story to play out as it had to.

I want to say about this last book the same thing that I said about the first –  I was captivated, I had to keep turning the pages, and it was lovely to be able to listen to someone so much cleverer than me, who was so articulate, who had so much to say about a subject that she loved, talking at very great length …

Her quality of writing; her world building; her depth of characterisation; her story telling; I found so much to love.

My favourite moments in this book were the most wonderful declaration and the realisation that I had been held in suspense to the very last page, suspecting but not really knowing how this grandest of stories would end.

I would love to know what happened next, I would love to read that stories that must have been happening before and after and to one side of the stories in these six books; but all I can do is go back and read then again, because I am quite sure that there are things that I have missed, I know that there are things I don’t quite understand, and I am certain that there is more to be revealed on a second reading.

Even if there wasn’t, I would want to step back into this world and live though this glorious telling of the life and times of Francis Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny again .

 

The Peacock Spring by Rumer Godden (1975)

In her preface to this novel, Rumer Godden wrote:

I suppose, in a way, I am a divided person, having two roots: Sussex, England where I was born and India where I first went when I was six months old. For most of my life I have gone back and forth between them in one I am homesick for the other.

Sometimes this homesickness becomes acute …. I seemed to feel the warm Indian dust under my sandalled feet, smell flowers in sun, and other smells pungent and acrid …. I had no reason to go back to India, but the longing persisted; then, as if in answer, came a story linked to a memory of something strange and sad that happened many years before ….

This story draws on that particular memory; and it was so fortunate that it belonged to an author who knew India as a child, who saw that country more clear-sightedly as an adult, and who loved both England and India, and could see the strengths and weaknesses of both countries and what each one brought to the complex relationship between them.

Fifteen-year-old Una and her half-sister Halcyon (Hal) were happily settled in an English boarding school, after spending most of their childhood in different homes in different countries as their father’s diplomatic career, when a most unexpected letter arrived.  It brought word that Sir Edward Gwithiam wished his daughters to join him in New Delhi, where he had recently been posted by the United Nations.

Hal was delighted with the prospect of a new adventure in India, but Una was desperately unhappy. She was clever, her teachers were encouraging her to set her sights on a good university, and she knew that even the best of governesses in India could not give her the education that she wanted and needed. The prospect of spending time with her adored father was little consolation.

Peacock SpringWhen she reached her father’s new home in Delhi, Una quickly realised that the reasons that her father had quoted in his letter were mere pretexts. Miss Lamont, who was to be her governess, was a beautiful woman, she held a privileged position in the household, and she was clearly unqualified to teach a well-educated fifteen year-old.

Of course Una understood what the real situation was, and why it was that she and Hal had been summoned.

Hal had never been much interested in lessons, she accepted Miss Lamont’s presence without question and happily accepted all of the lovely things that her new life had to offer.

Una resisted all of Miss Lamont’s attempts to win her over and a fierce battle of wills would develop between them. It was a battle that she could not win, because her adversary was cold and calculating, and determined that noting should prevent her from achieving her ambition, and because Una’s father shared that ambition and treated his daughter’s opposition as the behaviour of a spoilt child.

Hurt, troubled, and lonely, Una retired to the abandoned summer-house at the bottom of the garden, with her beloved books.

It was there that she met  Ravi, the under-gardener. He was a handsome young man, he was an aspiring poet, and the gift of a blue peacock feather would lead to a clandestine romance.

Una was smitten with the young man and the very different side of life in India that he showed her; and of course it don’t occur to ask why someone with his education was working in a garden. Ravi’s friend Hem, a more worldly-wise medical student, knew why; and he warned him that the relationship could only lead him into more trouble, but Ravi took no notice at all.

When Una made a discovery that she knew would appall her father, she and Ravi made a desperate plan, that they hoped would allow them to escape from the worst of the fallout. It didn’t occur to either of them that while Sir Edward might be happy to allow his daughter to ‘sulk’ for a while he still considered her a child and would act as soon as he realised that anything might be amiss.

The events that played out would be a painful coming of age for Una.

I was caught up with her from the very first, I understood her feelings and her actions, and my concern grew as the story progressed. That story had a wonderful understanding of the complications of family life, the awkwardness of the stage of life between childhood and adulthood, the intensity of first love, and the pain that learning more about how people are and how the world works. I couldn’t doubt for a moment that Rumer Godden understood and that she care; and she made me understand and care very deeply.

Her characterisations were deep and complex, and this was a story of real fallible people. Even Miss Lamont, who could be considered the villain of the piece, was a woman who could make me feel care and concern. She was mixed race, she didn’t fit into English or Indian society, and so her life had been a struggle and she had to hold on to the wonderful and unexpected chance that she had been offered. In contrast, Hem was lovely. He was a little older and wider than his friend, his advice was almost invariably ignored, but he would remain the truest and most thoughtful of friends to both Ravi and Una.

The prose is rich and evocative; the attention to detail is exactly right; but above all this is a human drama, and that drama felt so real that I might have been looking into the lives of people who really lived and breathed for a short but significant spell in their lives.