Perfectly ridiculous escapism (4 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published by Harper Collins. This edition published in 2010, original publication was in 1986.
The paperback edition is 832 pages
In my new year’s literary resolutions to myself, I promised that this year that I was going to read a few more chunky novels. Books that may take me longer to read overall, but ones that I can become fully absorbed in for a good few days- so, books of over 500 pages or more are what I personally define that category as.
Lady of Hay is the first of those novels- and at a whopping 832 pages is the sort of book that was actually a bit of a pain to carry around on my daily commute. At least it was a paperback so wasn’t too heavy. Maybe next time when I read a chunkster, I will ensure I get it on my Kindle?!
After a very long day at work, I am not going to try and write my own summary of the book this time around. Sorry, I know that is super-lazy of me, but seriously, if you had had the kind of day I had today then you would be doing the same. I’m amazed I can string two sentences together as it is, this evening. This summary is taken from Goodreads who do a much better job than I ever could of summarising a plot, anyway:
“Jo Clifford, successful journalist, is all set to debunk the idea of past-life regression in her next magazine series. But when she herself submits to a simple hypnotic session, she suddenly finds herself reliving the experiences of Matilda, Lady of Hay, the wife of a baron at the time of King John.
As she learns of Matilda’s unhappy marriage, her love for the handsome Richard de Clare and the brutal threats of death at the hands of King John, it becomes clear that Jo’s past and present are hopelessly entwined and that, eight hundred years on, a story of secret passion and unspeakable treachery is about to begin again..”
So, this was a well-written, engaging story of a time period that I knew very little about. I’m not a mad history reader. I studied history at school and I do enjoy historical fiction, but alas I cannot pretend to know a great deal about the subject matters covered in this novel and hence am unable to quantify the historical accuracies or inaccuracies for the more discerning readers out there. I took this story for what it was and I enjoyed it greatly; I found it to be atmospheric and evocative and to me at least, it seems like the author has paid a great deal of attention to the small details of the time in question to add some really neat details to the storyline- from the descriptions of the food to the clothing and sights, smells and sounds.
I loved the Hay-On-Wye setting most of all. What book-lover wouldn’t? Hay is a book town on the border between England and Wales and if you have not been there, then I highly recommend it if you ever get the opportunity. I enjoyed the time that Jo spent there within the story and learning about Matilda and her own time in the town centuries ago. Even in the 1980’s this charming town was steeped in literature and history and I find it fascinating that this has remained unchanged.
Character-wise, I must confess that I far preferred getting to know the characters centuries ago than those within the more contemporary setting. They were all well-drawn, but I think that Jo, Nick (her ex-boyfriend) and Sam (Nick’s brother and also a hypnotist) grew pretty repetitive in places, as did some of the dialogue and action between them. I feel it is actually those parts of the storyline that have made the book as long as it is. You could have easily taken out some of their interactions and not lost any of the context of this story. That said, maybe this is just because I didn’t like some of their interactions- especially some of the more violent scenes between them which made me wince a bit. There was a lot of creepiness, obsession and manipulation from some of the protagonists which left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth whilst I was reading, purely because of the dark direction in which it veered and how Jo herself was treated as a consequence of this. Jo was a stereotypical hard-headed and stubborn journalist who made for an interesting, albeit frustrating main character.
Some parts of the story were pretty ridiculous, contrived and cliched. I also found it quite jarring on occasion when the action veered from the past to the present again mid-chapter or even mid-paragraph whenever Jo came out of one of her hypnotic trances (seriously, that happens a lot. Get used to it). That aside though, I wanted escapist, absorbing reading and this book perfectly suited my requirements. I love it when a book fulfills your exact needs at the exact time.
Lady of Hay is a book that hasn’t been out of print for nearly thirty years. In fact, I read the twenty fifth anniversary edition, which is a pretty great achievement when you think about it. This copy was updated to include a short story that continues Nick and Jo’s story following the events of the main book in that subsequent quarter of a century. Personally, and though I can see why this was written, I just didn’t like it. Whether this was because it was my first time reading the book perhaps and I got to experience them in succession, but I didn’t think it was needed. I liked the ending of Lady of Hay which left readers wondering whether Jo finally got her happily ever after, given everything she’d been through. Undoubtedly fans of the first book will have welcomed the story and spent years wondering what had happened, but alas I wasn’t one of these.
I debated with myself whether to give this novel 3.5 stars or 4 stars and I think based purely on the medieval aspects of the story alone, it is a worthy 4. It also managed to hold my attention for the most part and certainly kept me reading to see what happened to Matilda, so despite the more modern setting being pretty repetitive and admittedly slightly ridiculous in parts, I think it is a pretty solid 4 stars.
I probably wouldn’t recommend this novel to real history buffs if I’m honest- they will have read better historical fiction and romantic fiction than this, I’m sure. Who I would recommend it to however are people looking for a long, escapist read and one that delves into a bit of history, romance, tragedy, science and the paranormal. If you are wanting those facets then believe me, this ticks all the boxes. I will certainly be reading more from Barbara Erskine again in future, though suffice to say I am not in any major rush to do so.