Friday, 12 August 2016

Review: Sophie and the Sibyl by Patricia Duncker

I made even more of a mess than usual with this photo...
I was honoured - blessed even - to have Duncker as a lecturer in my first year at UEA, and it is entirely due to her passion about the early Gothic to which I owe my own need to trace the genre back to its roots, and treat Ann Radcliffe as something more than the punchline of Northanger Abbey. Her attitude - frank, incisive and without snobbery - was an inspiration to the 18 year old know-it-all brat that I was then.

No, I didn't ask her to sign my copy of The Deadly Space Between. In those days, encountering writers whose books I liked was enough to send me running in the opposite direction in terror of my own complete inability to behave passably in front of someone whose good opinion I value. These days, I'd just muscle it out until they're convinced I'm a total idiot. Experience must be worth something, eh?

Anyway, Sophie and the Sibyl!

I have often been charged with an unfair dislike of realism, of flipping the writing class truism on its head and crying, "Yes, but what does the abscence of any supernatural element actually bring to the story?" and using, "This book wasn't for me," as a translation of, "There were no ghosts" But I maintain (to flip another truism) that of course you can write a book without supernatural elements, provided you prove yourself capable of writing something with them as well.

(Yes, I was very popular in my Creative Writing classes. Why do you ask?)

Oh, Gods, though, this book was gorgeous. Just a delightful character study, a beautiful historical novel that had me turning pages in enraptured glee. Revelling in its love of Literature, it is the perfect product of an analytical mind wedded to the demands of a keen reader. It's a book to make you think and make you feel.

Perhaps there was nothing seminal about it, but it was intelligent, engaged and absorbing. It just goes to show, that I have nothing against realism per se, only provided it is done well.