Bristol House by Beverly Swerling
30 May, 2013
Tudor England, the Jewish diaspora and the ghost of a Carthusian monk.
All call out to me and I couldn’t wait to start Beverly Swerling’s new novel, Bristol House, a dual narrative featuring architectural historian Annie Kendall who is on a 3-month research trip to London from New York. When she steps into Bristol House in the heart of Bloomsbury, where she is to stay, she comes face to face with the ghost of a long-dead Carthusian monk. And things get even stranger when she meets Geoffrey Harris, a political commentator at the BBC who is the spitting image of the monk, Dom Justin. When Geoffrey starts asking questions about the secretive organisation for whom Annie works, she finds her parameters shifting. For she is here to search for any evidence of the Jew of Holborn and the ancient Judaica he is said to have possessed and soon, Annie finds that sinister forces are going to stop at nothing to get their hands on them.
This makes Bristol House sound like a straightforward thriller but it isn’t. Swerling has created an engrossing tale that binds together the Tudor period with the dissolution of the monasteries, the rich cultural history of the Jewish diaspora and their migration across Europe together with the contemporary tale of Annie with her stalled academic career, her alcoholism, dysfunctional family life crossed with the more conventional English romantic lead that is Geoffrey (someone like Jeremy Paxman crossed with Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones’ Diary).
I’m in two minds about this book. One one hand, I really enjoyed the rich historical detail with which Swerling imbues her novel. Particularly fascinating is the depiction of Jews in a strongly Christian world especially the danger, the secrecy and the necessary subterfuge. I didn’t really know much about the Carthusians so welcomed the historical information which Swerling relishes. There were lots of historical bits and bobs which were new to me and you can see how much love Swerling has for London, especially the Bloomsbury area in which most of the story is set, and where I am sure she spent many hours walking the streets. It’s also one of my favourite areas where I spent most of my student years so I was nice to read about familiar places.
However, there were a few things that could have been a little more polished. Dom Justin’s storyline, although interesting, was a little weak. I didn’t really understand what the importance of him appearing in spectral form was to Annie. She didn’t really learn anything from him apart from a couple of pointers when doing her research. And the way in which she completely accepted his presence took a little convincing. The second and more weighty flaw was the emphasis on what was British. I understand that the novel is geared towards an American audience but I am sure that no one is that averse to pulling out a dictionary or even guessing what some words or phrases mean. It seemed as though every other sentence had the phrase ‘what they called…’ or ‘what is known as…’ which begins to grate after a few pages. I know this is a pet peeve of mine but I probably wouldn’t have continued if not for the pull of the historical mystery. And I am glad I did because I enjoyed the way in which Annie and Geoffrey uncovered the mystery of the monk.
One of the things I was impressed with, however, was Annie’s back story and the way in which Swerling handled her alcoholism and torn family life. I don’t normally go for such storylines but this was gripping with just the right amount of severity and redemption resulting in a fully-formed character. The romance between the two wasn’t too soppy although I found Geoffrey’s mother’s back story to be a little too contrived. I’m being very harsh here but I’m just airing the things that kept popping up in my brain and wouldn’t back down no matter how much I tried to reason them out.
Bristol House certainly provides a new and unique take on the historical thriller genre, something for which I am always on the lookout. I would have liked to know a bit more about the Jew of Holborn and although the climax of the tale fell a little flat, the strength of the book always lay in Annie and her research and I’m glad to say that delivered.
I would like to thank Viking for kindly sending me a copy of Bristol House to review.