The White Cross is a whole new reading experience; a book that brings something entirely original to historical fiction. Set in the late twelfth century at the time of King Richard I’s crusade to win back Jerusalem from the Saracens, the story deals with timeless issues – with the moralities of warfare and fundamental religion, the abuse of power, the heights of martial fervour and the depths of disillusionment The writing blazes with colour (literally in the case of the printed edition, which makes groundbreaking use of colour throughout). It pulses with life, capturing the sights and sounds, the very smells of medieval life. At the novel’s heart is the relationship between Garon and Elise – the story of an arranged marriage which rapidly develops into something deeper, to challenge a young husband’s strongly held beliefs and set him on a long and painful journey to self-realisation, to break and finally restore a woman’s spirit as she battles for recognition and for justice in a brutal man’s world. And then there is the Berge dal becce; a character who is surely more than he appears? The only way to uncover all the secrets of The White Cross is to read it!
The White Cross is the first in a series of four works of historical fiction that I'll review here in the next several weeks. The books are not a series, as I've come to know them, but they have a thread of commonality running through them - the area called Haddertun in Sussex.
Before the Prologus, Mr. Masefield offers a fair warning to his readers about some of the expressions used by Duke (soon to be King) Richard, which is good, because the first three words in the book comprise a 'doozie' made even more shocking by the fact it was made in a church, in front of several nuns, an Abbess and the Primate of all England. The types of expressions used are apparently historically accurate for the man but will offend those who don't appreciate anyone playing fast and loose with the Third Commandment, even if the speaker is shortly to be crowned "Defender of the Faith".
But while the era may have been defined by Richard, the main action of the book is not. Arranged marriages were not uncommon, and the novel proper opens with the meeting of Garon (from a family of some wealth) and Elise (from a family of noble title) -
soon to enter into wedded bliss - no, wait, that only happens in fairy tales. The progression of their relationship, from stilted and formal to something more, is set like a crowning jewel amongst the sensuous (of the (five) senses, not the other kind) Medieval times crafted by the author.
I'm all for books that can be experienced by our own senses, no matter how far back in the mists of history. My nose wrinkled at the smell of the old king's body (which had apparently received even more maltreatment after death). My elbows tensed at Duke/King Richard's description of breaking his father's arms post mortem in order to get them crossed over the corpse. I could feel Elise's curiosity about which of the many men she happened upon that day would actually be Garon, her future husband.
The plight of women during different historical times is something of a special interest of mine, and frankly, the description of the 'breaking and mending' of Elise's spirit rankled. Was it due to the relationship, the era, both, or something else entirely. I was reminded of another work of historical fiction that seemed to indicate that not even a princess of France, when 'unprotected' by her family, could be subject to the basest of uses by strong 'noblemen'. And it was another reminder of another time in history when I probably would not have survived long due to my liberal and intentional peppering of snark and sass in my speech.
But Garon also has his crosses to bear in this book. When beliefs about life, the world around us and everything else are revealed to be other than they seem, it can rock us to our foundations. As in the other three books by the author, he does not spare us society's pervasive and unflinching cruelty to its own more vulnerable members.
Having read The White Cross, would I read other works by author Richard Masefield? Only anything and everything! (I see there is a sequel to Chalkhill Blue in the works, and am already dancing with glee.) Do I recommend Cross? Definitely! Fans of historical fiction should have at least one Masefield title (and probably more) on their shelves!
MEET THE AUTHOR
It took years of hard work before Richard could realise his dream, and in fact his first published novel was written while milking a herd of Friesian cows. He still lives on his farm in Sussex with his wife Lee and together they spend as much time as possible with their large family of children and grandchildren.
You can visit Richard’s website at www.richardmasefield.co.uk.
Click on the banner to go to the tour page, where you will find links to more reviews of these titles. And come on back to the Porch next Monday (July 18), Wednesday (July 20) and the following Tuesday (July 26) for my reviews of the other books in the tour!
(Disclosure: I received copies of these books from the author and publishers via Historical Fiction Virtual Blog Tours in exchange for my honest reviews.)