Whoa, talk about a fascinating novel. It opens with a murder and builds from there! I finished the book in just over three days (with severely limited time) and it is most definitely a page turner with realistic characters and enough actual history thrown in to make you wonder how much is real and what isn’t.
I heard about this book from Books on the Nightstand and I HAD to read it. Not only did the story sound fascinating, but I mean come on it’s about Geoffrey Chaucer. He was the first person, out of my family, that I can remember who had the same name and more importantly, the same spelling, as ME!
I remember having to memorize the prologue to The Canterbury Tales in high school and enjoying the tales, but as interested in Chaucer as I was because of his name, I’ve never looked into his life or any fictional accounts of his life. I’ve had Who Murdered Chaucer? on my shelf for almost a month and kept putting it off, but now I’ve read this fictional book about Chaucer, I’m going right into a speculative history about Chaucer!
It’s hard to say what I enjoyed most about the book from the courtly intrigue to the drama on the streets! The book has a series of protagonists from John Gower, a gather of information, to Millicent Fonteyne, a former maudlyn (prostitute) and Eleanor/Edgar Rykener, a cross-dressing maudyln, you never quite know what you’re going to get when the next chapter starts. The novel revolves around the search for a small book which contains prophecies of the thirteen kings of England and it seems that everyone in the city has read or heard the prophesies, but no one knows where the book is. I won’t go more into the plot because I’m sure I’ll accidentally reveal something I shouldn’t.
The family stories were what really drove this novel for me. John Gower and his son Simon, Millicent and Agnes Fonteyne and their mother Beth Waller, and Eleanor/Edgar and Gerald Rykener all had stories which helped to make the novel more believable and readable. Of all of these, Eleanor Rykener was the most fascinating character and Holsinger based her in historical research and that is what is most impressing. This is how Eleanor describes herself early in the novel
“Swerver. And that’s what I am, like it or not. A man in a body, a woman in soul. One day a he, the next a she, a stiff cock for some, a tight arse for others. Provided they could pay, Eleanor would do all and be all for her loyal jakes, and she had plenty who liked taking it and giving it every which way.” (44)
The New York Times Sunday Book Review discusses this and Holsinger’s better ability at research and writing, but I felt this character was incredibly well written. This has very little to do with her switching genders, or playing both, while working with jakes (patrons), but with her interactions with her younger brother Gerald and how all she wants to do is protect him and keep him out of trouble.
Apart from his great characters, I felt his writing was mediocre, but there were great descriptions of the world, especially this one at the end,
“We live in an immense world, whole universes of taste and touch and scent, of voices, commingling in the light, and dying away with the common dread that stands at every man’s door. Yet we perceive and remember this world only as it creates those single fragments of experience: moments of everyday kindness, or self-sacrificing love, or unthinkable brutality.” (435-6)
Not only did it tie the book up incredibly well, it was a great observation of how the world must’ve been then and how the world is even more-so these days.
Recommendation: I would definitely recommend this one! It was interesting and incredibly well written for a historical fiction novel, you could definitely tell it was well researched and I thought the characters were great and it ended at the right point and wasn’t dragged out too long.
Opening Line: “Under a clouded moon Agnes huddles in a sliver of utter darkness and watches him, this dark-cloaked man, as he questions the girl by the dying fire.”
Closing Line: “At the food of the bridge I stumbled on a loose paver but recovered my footing as a flock of starlings whorled above, as the way widened into the teeming breadth of Southwark, like a narrow river finding the sea.” (Whited out.)