by Amanda Curtin
198 mm ×129 mm
11 Feb 2016
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It has taken a lifetime for me to see that the more afraid people are of the darkness, the further into it they will flee.
Nearing the end of her life, Meggie Tulloch takes up her pen to write a story for her granddaughter. It begins in the first years of the twentieth century, in a place where howling winds spin salt and sleet sucked up from icefloes.
A place where lives are ruled by men, and men by the witchy sea. A place where the only thing lower than a girl in the order of things is a clever girl with accursed red hair. A place schooled in keeping secrets.
Moving from the north-east of Scotland, to the Shetland Isles, to Fremantle, Australia, Elemental is a novel about the life you make from the life you are given.
GUEST-POST BY AMANDA CURTIN
Amanda Curtin’s Top Five Historical Novels
I always find it difficult to ‘rank’ books, so please accept these five as just a selection, in no particular order, of some of the brilliant historical novels I’ve pulled from my shelves.
Patrick Süskind’s classic Perfume plunged me into eighteenth-century France with a wrinkle of disgust on my nose and a gritty taste on my tongue. It seduced me into siding with the brilliant, grotesque and reprehensible main character Grenouille as he becomes a connoisseur and collector of beauty and a skilled and passionate murderer. (Perfume is also notable for being possibly the only thing I have in common with the late Kurt Cobain: it was apparently a favourite of his, too.)
It’s been a long time since I read Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders but I have always remembered this story of the village in seventeenth-century England that quarantined itself, sacrificing most of its population, to prevent the spread of Black Death beyond its perimeter. The story of shepherdess-turned-housemaid Anna, who helps the village priest to contain the disease, is one of transcendence and hope, and so beautifully told.
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, set in northern Iceland in the early nineteenth century, is chilling in atmosphere and chilling in its tale of Agnes Magnusdottir, a young woman awaiting execution for murder. Agnes’s final days are spent undertaking hard labour on a remote farm with a family who at first regard her with fear and resentment but gradually respond to her as something other than a monster. She is visited by a spiritual counsellor, and it is to the young priest that Agnes tells a haunting, brutal story of the man who was her lover.
The mere thought of a seventeen-year-old virgin being entombed for life in a cell to pray for the souls of her village nearly put me off reading Robyn Cadwallader’s The Anchoress, but it turned out to be a compelling, compassionate novel. I was fascinated by the novel’s austere, unfamiliar medieval world, and the seemingly inexplicable life decision Sarah willingly makes to enter the confined space of the anchorhold. Recommended even for claustrophobics!
Gail Jones’s Sixty Lights is a precious favourite of mine. It is set in Victorian times, and to that extent is a historical novel, but its main character Lucy Strange and her brother Thomas, orphaned as children, seem to have a singular modernity, an anachronistic precociousness, in the way they respond to a Dickensian world. But for me that seems only to add to the beauty of this novel. Wise, otherworldly Lucy becomes an amateur photographer, but I am entranced rather by the exquisite textual images of her ‘Special Things Seen’ and ‘Photographs Not Taken’—the ‘lights’ by which Jones makes Lucy’s inner world visible.
is a critically acclaimed writer
and book editor who lives in Perth,