Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review: A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin


Based on the jacket copy, this book is right up my alley: it combines the historical mystery of the Princes in the Tower with two historical narrators involved in the drama (Elizabeth and Anthony Woodville) and a modern narrator, a historian named Una.  The jacket copy promises the book is "a brilliant feat of historical daring."  Suffice to say it falls short both of brilliance and daring.
A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin
The narrator would NEVER HAVE WORN
A COAT THIS CUTE. I feel misled.
Also, this cover has nothing to do with the book.


All three narrators' stories are interwoven, presumably to illuminate each other. The modern narrator, Una Pryor, belongs to a large family that owns and operates a press housed in a medieval chantry.

(Digression alert.  Chantry is a weird word, isn't it? A former friend once told me a terrible story about a dentist named Chantry.  Something about mold growing in someone's head?  Gross, n'est-ce pas?  I still like the word, though.)  

This part of the story follows Una and her repressed, noncommunicative family as they struggle to figure out how to keep their small press in business despite aging family members, scattered younger family members, and financial concerns.  You'd think they were Swedish the way they refuse to ask questions or say a single thing they're thinking.

The two medieval narrators, Anthony and Elizabeth, tell the story of the Woodville family from their precipitous rise to power when Elizabeth married Edward IV to the rise of Richard III and the murder of two of Elizabeth's sons in the Tower as a part of Richard's power-grab. These historical narratives are done relatively well, except for the gimmick of spelling the names differently in the medieval narrative and spelling them in modernized fashion in the modern narrative (Antony/Anthony; Elysabeth; Elizabeth). Despite the spelling issues, Anthony and Elizabeth are sympathetic and layered.  They need a lot more room to play.  They might have been able to save the book had they been the only ones telling the tale.

The Worst Part
The modern narrator is a disaster.  She is passive, weak, scattered, and stupendously uninteresting.  Unfortunately, she carries most of the book.  She is a hand-wringing sort, the kind who sighs with unhappiness and bemoans her state when a simple question, spoken out loud, would solve everything.  She makes a big deal about being exhausted and tired when she hasn't done very much but sit in a car as a passenger and worry about things.

I wanted to steal things from her just to watch her DO something as she hunted for them.

An Also Pretty Bad Part
But the weird structure and shifts in tone and tense are what killed the book for me. The whole purpose of interspersing modern and medieval perspectives should theoretically be to illuminate similarities in us despite the hundreds of years in between. But the two time periods are only loosely connected, and Darwin makes little effort to provide any sort of illumination.  The modern characters fluff around in self-indulgent heaps, while the medieval characters get less page time despite the fact that the cosmos basically hands their collective ass to them, which is much more interesting.

Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth Woodville: hot or not?
Una, the modern narrator, is theoretically writing a book about the books of the Woodvilles.  You'd think the character might actually try to find out what they are, or read them, and think about them.  Nope.  She mentions one or two titles, but doesn't do more than go visit a couple of the locations the Woodvilles found themselves in, and then whine about how she can't "find" them in these places.  Really, she just pines over a guy who worked in her family's chantry and then shows up again to help them save it.  And pining makes her so tired, so then she just has to rest.  It was almost halfway through the book before I realized Una might be, like, 50?  60?  Not really sure.  Never confirmed.

The Weakest Link
Una is the weak link that destroys any real, lasting, emotional connection between our time and the Woodvilles.  She's the weak link full stop, as the Brits say.  Does she bother to make connections about her family losing their press and chantry as the Woodvilles lost their father, brother, and nephews during the upheavals of the War of the Roses?  Nope.  Does the widowed Una bother to connect herself to Elizabeth, widow of Edward IV?  Maybe once.  In a sentence.  Does she bother to think for even a moment about Anthony Woodville (here, in love with a man) and her uncle Gareth (a closeted gay man)?  What they might have shared in their experience?  Nope.  Too much trouble, apparently.  Takes away from valuable time spent pining and whining and wringing her hands.

Lego tree
The cheater tree.
In the end, Una thinks she might write a biography instead of a scholarly work on the Woodvilles' books.  But what on earth has she learned about them?  She finds a letter written by one of them that purports to clear up that whole what-happened-to-the-Princes-in-the-Tower thing, touted as the focus of the book on the jacket.  It gets a couple of sentences.  That's it.  And then the annoying-ass narrator thinks she's awesome for being in the right place at the right time to have someone hand her the letter, and decides to write a biography when she never really tried to write the scholarly book in the first place.  UGH.  It's like watching a kid think about trying to build a house out of Legos and then give up and stick the Lego tree on the green Lego base board instead.  Because it's easier.  And because they found the tree in the box.  DONE, MAN.  I NAILED THAT SHIT.  LOOK AT MY LEGO TREE ON THIS NICE LEGO BASEBOARD.  I DOUBT YOU COULD HAVE DONE BETTER.

Oh, God, There's More?
The book also has another one of my pet peeves--present tense.  Una's story is told in present tense, but it has so many friggin' flashbacks in the first half of the book, that half of the present tense ends up being in past tense anyway.  JUST USE PAST TENSE.  Present tense adds nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  All it does is confuse the living hell out of the bored reader who suddenly finds that Una has slipped yet again into a reverie.  This woman should never be allowed to drive a car or operate heavy machinery.  It's like narcolepsy of the soul.  Surely there is a medication to deal with this.

But How's the Writing?
The prose is stilted and hard to read for its sheer lack of fluidity.  To wit:
"As I eat, I can't help but watch Mark. His plate's on the ground in front of him. Even with his knees bent up, his legs cross more of the rug than any Pryor's ever would. He looks up, our eyes meet.  Even if he'd reached out his hand--his beautiful, long-fingered hand--and actually touched my cheek I couldn't be more shaken.  What is this heat? Memory's powerful. But this, is this about the past?  I was grown up by then and talking to Mark, working with Mark, referring to Mark, had all become easy enough, because the paths for that were well laid. The longer what I knew--thought--felt--went unspoken, the more manageable it was, and even the despair became a settled thing, a known quantity, a thick, stable layer at my core. I even sometimes thought he'd forgotten what I'd said, and sometimes thinking so hurt more, and sometimes it hurt less."
Oh, holy crap. This is just too much.  We have present tense.  We have past tense.  We have the ridiculous contraction of "memory's powerful."  We have some amorphous shift into the days when she dreamed about Mark. We have the a question asked of no one in particular.  It's like a twelve-year-old girl trying to use a fifty-year-old woman's language.  It just doesn't work.

They Don't All Talk Like That, Do They?
It's not just Una who talks like this.  It's her would-be beloved, Mark, too.  Here's what he says during their great love scene:
Facepalm cat"I know. You wouldn't.  But--but...I'm sorry, tell me if it's none of my business.  I've been thinking about Sunday night.  It's all I've thought about since...And Gareth said he wondered...Did you...I understand that for you--it's...Was it about ending for you? About the Chantry? About leaving England? About Adam, above all? I know that...But I hope you'll forgive me if I say...And ending, like you said. For you."
Oh, dude, just SPIT IT OUT.  In real life, people might talk like this, but it is terrible on the page.  Stilted and awkward and juvenile.  This is the hero (?)'s big moment, and it's like a first-time hurdler stutter-stepping right out of the gate.  Linguistically, these are so not the people you want to spend 400 pages with.

Ugh.  I could go on.  But there's no point.  Just read the parts with Anthony and Elizabeth and skip all the modern parts because they will suck the patience and life out of you until you look the Cryptkeeper.

This book earned Darwin a PhD in Creative Writing from Goldsmiths College.  This makes me want to bang my head against the wall until it's bloody and then write something better IN MY OWN BLOOD.  Maybe in 10 years.  Once I've finished paying for my Master's.