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I read this book on my flight from Switzerland to Australia. Usually long haul flights tend to soften the sparkle of most reading experiences, in fact one could argue that they soften the sparkle of almost every experience. It is something about the snoring, the crying babies… not to mention the recycled stale air and the horrible reheated plane food. Despite all of that going against my time with Rosie Garland’s book, I found myself not just enjoying it, but loving the book.
I bought Garland’s novel on a whim. I was in the book store, looking for something, unsure what exactly, and came across the book wedged at the back of the shelf. I bought the book based on the cover and while I am well aware of all the sayings that go with this action, I was not disappointed at all. Thank god for whims!
This book is written from three perspectives, Thomas, Anne, and Vixen/the maid (although her ‘real’ name is never actually given and throughout reading the book I often wondered if she knew her name at all), and what I like about the novel is that it teaches you something without being too overt with the message. For me, Garland was telling me: to check my beliefs, find out ‘who I am’, and once you know who you are hold on to it tight.
Thomas is a priest in a small rural town called Brauntone. He is conservative, pious, and a strict follower of the ‘word of god’. And I deliberately use quotation marks here, because Thomas is essentially a follower of his own conservative interpretation. His beliefs make him a frustrating paradox. He wishes that his fellow villagers see his as kind and caring, yet he will beat Anne to show her how wrong she is in the ‘eyes of god’. He cannot receive any criticism, but is good at dishing it out, and although he seems secure in his beliefs he is actually quite an insecure man.
Anne goes to work as the housekeeper for Thomas in the hopes that he would take her as ‘wife’. Although he isn’t allowed to officially marry, Anne had hoped they could live together as husband and wife. Thomas, however, is completely against this and uses Anne as an almost slave in his house. Anne, is a very naive woman at the beginning of the novel. She is unsure of herself and believes that a life of quasi-marital bliss will bring her everything she has desired. The fact that she ends up being on a different end of the sexual orientation spectrum at the end of the novel is just one obvious example of how she changes as a person.
The catalyst of the story is Vixen, who is described as having magical powers to transform her appearance, although it is never quite clear how she does it. She comes to Brauntone to escape the plague and death. When she is found by the townspeople, Thomas proclaims her a miracle maid sent from god. Her disguise as an uneducated animal-like girl has everyone bar Anne convinced. And eventually they start to talk. It is Vixen who questions Anne’s blind submission to Thomas and it sparks a change in Anne. Simultaneously, Anne’s kindness and patience spark a change in Vixen and her attitude to not only Anne, but the world.
When the plague reaches the gates of Brauntone, Anne and Vixen try to save as many people in the town as possible by using horse urine (I am not sure if this is an actual historical fact that Garland picked up somewhere or an invention from her own mind).
Thomas never actually learns from his mistakes or his misbeliefs and in the last pages of the book he is a shadowy old figure ignored by everyone in the town. Anne and Vixen, each in their own ways, learns that the time to be who you are is now. And, each in their own ways, pays the the price for not being who they wanted to be sooner. They say that books come to you when you need them most, and I felt that this book was fitting to read at the end of 2015 when new year’s resolutions are always on the tip of everybody’s tongue.
Who are you going to be in 2016? As always, remember to share the reading love.