Narrator Jacob Cullen, educated but now a servant, flees his royalist household, taking his bride of just an hour and his brother after a cold blooded murder. In a second act of terrible brutality, he beats and rapes his wife. Becoming a pikeman in Cromwell’s New Model Army, he befriends Christopher Ferris, an idealist disaffected by the Army and in search of a less tainted freedom. And so the two desert and head for London and the pleasures of Cheapside–and each other. Jacob becomes “a fornicator of unnatural appetite, in thrall to an Atheist… I was in love”. But Ferris is intent on establishing a commune, a prospect Jacob reviles, yet to keep his lover he has no choice but to join the motley band.
Review by Erastes
Jacob Cullen, a man of hasty temper and with an unstable temperment is forced, for reasons I won’t divulge, to flee the manor where he serves with his wife and his brother. Very soon he falls out with them and they desert him, leaving him to attempt to walk to Bristol. He falls in with The New Model Army (Cromwell’s Army) and joins them for a month or two in which time he becomes obsessed with Christopher Ferris, a troubled but basically good man.
This is a very clever book, in a lot of ways. It’s incredibly well researched, and makes my version of the English Civil War seem rather shallow in comparison. Tthe immersion into the period is deep, convincing and realistic. It does what I always appreciate in a book, it tells of the world without over describing it. After all, when you walk into a room you don’t think “I walked into the room where there were two Persian rugs four Hepplethwhite chairs, some red velvet curtains and a desk with…. ” You simply describe what is immediate. This book does that; it’s not to say that there isn’t superb period detail in there, there is, but it’s only brought out when it’s necessary. Clothes for example. Jacob’s clothes are described in exquisite detail at one point, right down to lace and buttons but they are amazing clothes, nothing the like of which he’s seen or worn before – so it makes perfect sense for him to describe them. And so it goes, that’s how the book is, never info dumping, but making you feel you are there.
What really impressed me more than anything else is the sure bravery that the author shows in writing this 1. from the point of view of a man, a soldier in that time – knowing that she was going to have to show his view of the war etc but 2. That Jacob is just about as unpleasant a character as I’ve ever read about. I can’t believe that Ms McCann meant him to be anything else, and as far as I am concerned she suceeded admirably. As an author, I can’t imagine how any writer can embark on a story like this and yet – why not? Most of us are pretty unpleasant types! However, my hat is off to her. Not only did she write about a man with (as far as I was concerned, your mileage may vary) no redeeming qualities save that he loves another man but she kept me hooked into the book so deeply that I was willing him to have some kind of redemption, to bring about some miraculous ending which I could tell, even quite early on was never going to happen.
Jacob is truly unpleasant, but so brilliantly written that he’s hardly even aware of it himself for most of the book. Of course, this is perfectly sensible – how many of us actually think we are awful people? Jacob’s sense of self-loathing however, is ingrained in every page, less so at the beginning and ebbs and flows throughout, but gradually working into a crescendo ending with the last two heartbreaking lines. It again shows such skill that I wanted to smack/kick/kill Jacob for most of the book and yet he had me sobbing when I reached the last page.
I suppose in this day and age he would be known as a Sociopath – and in fact if you read the list of Sociopath social traits on this page you would think that Ms McCann made a note of all those character traits and started with Jacob using this as a base. What I don’t understand , even though I’ve re-read the first chapters several times to get a gleaning of it, is WHY he did what he did at Beaurepair. I can’t see any reason for it, other than he just “wanted to”.
I pitied him, immensely, because I could tell that he wasn’t going to change, but I pitied Ferris even more because he’d fallen in love with the wrong man, and that’s something I can relate to, big time. But Ferris was a grown man, and he had plenty of choices to cast Jacob aside – and could have done – and didn’t. He even dumped poor Nathan without a word, and as far as I know nothing more than a shirt looted from Basing to run off with a man who he knew he couldn’t change. He was taking a risk too, as at that point he didn’t even know if Jacob was going to be acquiescent to a homosexual relationship and he was leaving behind an established one for an uncertain future. But I guess I understand that. Better to leave a lesser love for the promise of The Big One. And Jacob could have been The Big One if he hadn’t've stuffed it up, like he stuffed everything up.
As a nice change this book wasn’t OKhomo (everyone’s gay and everyone’s OK about it) and I didn’t expect it to be as it isn’t a Romance and I was expecting it to be an accurate historical novel. In fact the men are’nt “GAY” at all, in the way that we would know it today, they’ve both been married and allegedly in love with their wives. They both consider marrying again. Ferris I think knows his sexuality better than Jacob (who is more opportunist – I think he would have had Nathan had he offered himself up) but Jacob is (I think) drawn to Ferris first as a friend and then finds he love him. But the risks they run are very real, are reflected in every single sexual encounter they have, even when they are “safe” in Ferris’s Aunt’s house in London. I did wonder about the wooden floorboards and the wooden beds though as I found it difficult to imagine it would have been easy to muffle the sounds of male sex which can be quite acrobatic. But the danger is there, hanging, lynching, burning – all of them a very real dange, even though even then, they knew that proof would have been needed.
There was one point when I had a WTF moment and that’s when Jacob met up again with Zeb; I didn’t see the point of this – I didn’t understand how Zeb had the knowledge he had, why he didn’t use it and what the meeting was set up to do – it seemed rather pointless. But then, I guess that’s realistic – not all meetings we have in this world are filled with meaning.
All the minor characters were great. I don’t think one of them was pallid or forgettable. I think possibly because Jacob hates them all in varying degrees, partly in jealousy that he can’t bear anyone to get close to Ferris. In fact the only character that I think that Jacob truly loved was Aunt, and possibly because she was more of a mother to him than his own mother was. It was so touching when she said “don’t worry, your hair will soon grow back” and Jacob looked around “eagerly” – like a child so desperate for affection and he found she was speaking to someone else. It was a briliant moment because Jacob had actually been empathising with the woman who had been shorn, and after that, I think he lost the empathy.
The “venture” was doomed to fail from the begiining, I don’t know if any of these ventures DID suceed and there were a few of them, you can’t blame the people, they’d had Cromwell and his cronies banging on about how everyone would be granted land, and all men were created equal so it wasn’t surprising that a few people formed communes in this way.
As to the ending – the Voice – and Jacob’s gradual descent? I don’t know. It’s the kind of book that has had me thinking all day. I cried at the end, bitter frustrated tears at the stupid stupid man – but then, if he had behaved differently he’d have been with the commune at the end. Then I went and bored my dad with it for about an hour and I’m still running it through in my head. I need to read it again. Did Jacob know the date was different at the end? Did the letter get it wrong? Was it Caro? Or had Jacob’s mind broken at the loss of Ferris? Was it “Caro” with Ferris in the wood? There’s so many questions I can’t answer. On the surface it all seems plain sailing, but we are inside the head of a man on the brink of madness, and frankly – how much of it all can we trust?
And the ending – stellar. It was the only thing he could do really – he wasn’t going to kill himself, after all – not with those character traits, he’ll blame everyone else in the world before he’d blame himself – although perhaps if the colony had ALL gone on a flipping ship it would have been a different book!
So yes – I loved it. Impressed impressed impressed. By the way, there is quite a lot of sex, but it’s quite subtle, but there is a lot of it.