Well bibliophiles, Richard Abbott over at Kephrath is back with another guest review. His book In a Milk and Honeyed Land was published by Trafford Publishing and is available on Amazon. You can visit Richard’s website by clicking here. As always, the Bookworm is happy to have Richard’s input!
I really liked A Swarming of Bees, by Theresa Tomlinson, and have no hesitation in awarding five stars. The subject matter, the presentation, the writing style: all of this came together just right for my taste. And it had a couple of maps, which always please me. These help the reader become oriented in the community of Whitby, called here by the Old English name of Streonshalh. For those who are not familiar with English geography, Whitby is on the east coast, in the modern county of Yorkshire, looking across the North Sea towards Scandinavia. Somewhat later than this story, it would be part of the Viking-dominated region called the Danelaw (as in The Bone Thief), but at this time it was in Northumbria, a large swathe of land ruled from Bamburgh.
The historical setting is in the immediate aftermath of the Synod of Whitby, in 664AD. This was a key moment in British Christianity when the fledgling native church, which had been isolated from Europe after the collapse of the Roman empire, was brought back under the authority of Roman Catholicism.
Now, many today might regret the loss to the church of the Celtic flavour of faith that this caused, but at the time, church unity was considered more important than insisting on an opinion. Individual Christian leaders might (and did) regret the loss, and expressed it by withdrawal to isolated communities, but there was no church schism resulting from this event.
Anyway, A Swarming of Bees has this event, and the resulting shakeup of church leadership, as part of the background. But for many of the individuals who are central, the choice is not between Roman and Celtic Christianity. Rather, it is between any sort of Christianity and their continuing allegiance to the older beliefs. The British Isles were – and in many ways still are today – a meeting place for many different styles of life and faith.
This intersection of culture, and the different ways people approach it, is at the heart of Theresa’s book. Abbess Hild, leader of the religious community, is willing and able to bridge the potential gap of religious experience in order to integrate the community rather than divide it. She is an inspirational figure, successfully threading the difficult line between compassion and compromise.
The plotline is basically a murder mystery, with the detective role played by the abbey herbalist Fridgyth. She personifies many of the tensions and insecurities of the age, and I found her an endearing character who it was easy to identify with. Along with that, the frequent references to, and recipes for, herbal and folk medicines give depth to her experience. Regarding the murder mystery, there are some echoes here of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, though the motives here reflect the turbulent political and social setting of the times, rather than the religious extremism that Eco likes to target. As such, the story, and the motives of the various protagonists, are much more accessible to a modern audience.
But the mystery is only part of the subject matter, and only part of the charm of this book. More prominent are the everyday difficulties and triumphs faced by the inhabitants of Whitby – both within and without the abbey walls. It is a time when plague ravages the land, leaving whole communities decimated, orphaned, and struggling in its aftermath.
This lends a sense of perspective to the grim events within the abbey – for many lay people living nearby, there are much more urgent survival challenges. In any age it is easy to interpret drastic events as divine commentary on momentous, perhaps questionable, decisions, and this era was no exception.
Theresa blends poetry in with her prose, faithfully mirroring the Old English alliterative style – I personally found this a great source of delight. It is a style which held sway in this country and elsewhere in Europe for a long time, before (many years later) being supplanted by the accentual and rhyme-dominated patterns which are much more familiar to many people. But in the world of Streonshalh, the traditional patterns of verse are alive and well, and used powerfully and beautifully by Caedmon and others to bridge the pre-Christian and Christian views of creation.
All in all, a very satisfying book to have read – and which I am sure I will re-read in a while. Five stars, definitely.
You can visit Richard’s website by clicking here.