Dissolution

Title: Dissolution

Author: C. J. Sansom

Rating: 3/5

C. J. Sansom’s debut novel Dissolution is the reason I finally started this blog after having thought about doing so for ages. It is the first in a series featuring lawyer Matthew Shardlake, who works for Lord Cromwell at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. To broadly summarise the premise of this instalment, Shardlake is sent to investigate the murder of Cromwell’s commissioner in a wealthy monastery in Sussex. He takes along his protégé Mark Poer for assistance and support.

Initially, I raced through Dissolution. The atmosphere is well-developed and I could feel the brooding tension at the monastery mounting as the story went on. Given that the author has a PhD in history, it’s not surprising that all the little details which go into creating and maintaining a setting were consistent and realistic. (Not being an expert on the Reformation period myself, I’ve no idea if they were accurate, but they were certainly realistic). Although Sansom managed to avoid giving pages and pages of irrelevant description, I had a clear picture in my head of the layout and structure of the monastery throughout the novel, particularly the infirmary. There are constantly little ‘tells’ that yes, this story really is set 500 years ago and yes, it really was like that. Characters, including sympathetic characters, express racist and sexist views (that would not have been considered racist or sexist at the time), and the depiction of the monastery toilets is colourful, to say the least. The narrative itself doesn’t reflect these views—the most interesting non-Shardlake character was an Moorish physician—but the ease with which they are expressed grounds the narrative in the time period.

In fact, given that this is more or less just pulp crime fiction wearing a codpiece, the amount of detail and thought that is put into the story is impressive. This doesn’t just manifest itself in the historical facts; several of the characters are well fleshed out, particularly Shardlake himself. Shardlake was given just enough backstory to explain his beliefs and motivations without it overwhelming the plot. Since it’s the first in a series, I presume he is gradually developed over the course of the novels. The monks, in keeping with their roles as suspects, are depicted as neither wholly good nor wholly bad—at no point does this novel deal with absolutes. The good characters aren’t perfect and the bad characters aren’t evil, and most of them fall somewhere in the middle anyway—a convincing portrayal of reality in fact.

This brings me to my third and final highlight—the distinction Sansom draws between the actions of the church and the character of God. I am a Christian—a Protestant—but I recognise that atrocities have been committed in and by all denominations throughout the centuries. Even though I am pleased the reform happened, because the idea that the church was selling salvation and monetising the grace of God sickens me, I do realise that reformation was accomplished using methods that do not at all reflect the heart of God, and for reasons that did not glorify Him. I expected, picking up a book about the dissolution, to read a lot of church-bashing. I got it—neither the Reformers nor the Catholics get off scot-free, and Sansom draws attention to some of the more inexcusable things that were done by both parties. Remarkably, he does this without condemning the church whole-scale or profaning the name of God*. Very much of the appalling stuff done during the reformation, in the name of the Lord, is directly contrary to His Word. That’s a vital distinction to be drawn—one which is rarely made explicit even in news media in the 21st century—and the fact that Sansom does it so clearly greatly increased my enjoyment of this book.

However, I can only give this book 3/5, because I have to admit it lost something in the closing chapters. The uneasy tension, which was so deliciously created at the start of the novel, doesn’t explode in a climactic fight scene or spill over the tops of the monastery into rioting the streets—nothing so dramatic. Although there is a crisis point, in which there is a great deal of action, I didn’t feel like the plot capitalised on all the excellent atmosphere. Moreover, I guessed who the murderer was on initial introduction, although I did second-guess myself several times afterwards. It was disappointing to realise that I was right—the whole climax and denouement seemed a let-down in comparison to the rising action. I can’t exactly put my finger on it—at least not without spoilers—but even though the loose ends were tied up, I was still left with an unsatisfactory feeling of ‘unfinished’ because of the way Sansom chose to end it. Additionally, the sole female character struck me as a stock stereotype of ‘feisty girl’, without any particular character qualities outside that trope. Weak, generic female characters are always a bit of a disappointment to me.

This was his first novel and I think it reads as a very good debut, far better than a lot of the whodunits I’ve read. If it had been third or fourth in a series, I’m not sure I would have bothered to buy the next one, but as it is, I’m looking forward to it. I always find it exciting to see how a writer’s style develops and matures throughout a series, and this book in particular shows a lot of promise.

*There is lots of 16th century-style blasphemy, to be sure—lots of ‘God’s wounds’ and ‘God’s death’—but it doesn’t feel bitter or critical, it feels like an accurate depiction of the time.

Favourites

First review is coming at some point in the near future (C. J. Sansom’s Dissolution), but it’s been so long since I wrote anything other than dry protocols and papers that I thought I ought to get back into the habit of writing informally, if only so that you don’t tire of my excessive semi-colon use three posts in. For this reason, I thought that perhaps I would start with a handful of my favourite books, accompanied by a short description of why each of them is a favourite. I’m unlikely to ever write coherent reviews for any of these–I love them too much to critique them–but I certainly have vivid and colourful feelings about them all. My favourites list is subject to constant change (with a few noteworthy exceptions); for GCSE French, I distinctly remember that my oral exam topic was ‘Mon livre préfère c’est Wuthering Heights’, which doesn’t even rank in the top ten any more. These three, however, are likely to stay on the list for the foreseeable future. Please note: here be spoilers for a handful of novels published at least 50 years ago. You have been warned.

1) Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot

This novel is unlikely to be dislodged from my top spot any time soon. I have, in fact, only read Middlemarch once; I am simultaneously desperate to read it again, and observe all the beautiful things I undoubtedly missed the first time around, and also afraid to read it again, in case that magical transformative experience that I had the first time fails to materialise. It is unlikely that I’ll ever be able to write a proper review of the book, because it made me feel and think such a variety of things, and so vividly, that I would hardly be able to form them all into a cogent structure. The appeal of the work, for me, lies in the characters, which are painstakingly and convincingly drawn. In particular, I felt an almost instant love for Dorothea, whose battles with gender politics and finding an ‘appropriate’ role for herself in a society that mistrusts intelligent, compassionate women carried over disconcertingly well into the 21st century. Encountering her for the first time was, for me, almost like reading one of those terrifying leaflets they force on you in Year 8 PSHE about pregnancy and drugs and alcohol—only far more compelling, because I was always more likely to marry some dry, ancient bully (primarily because of his mastery of Ancient Hebrew*) than I was to end up on a street corner with a needle in my arm. Dorothea was very much a cautionary tale for me, and I loved her the better for it.

Of course, there’s more to the book than that; I haven’t really said a word about idealism and social justice and the complex and convincing portrayal of love, or really any of the things that make it a masterpiece. Perhaps, one day, I will be able to force my thoughts into sensible, thoughtful structures; for now, my overriding impression of Middlemarch is of Dorothea, whose integrity and compassion amidst her own suffering convicted me to my core; Dorothea, whose story has coloured the way I have become an adult and the way I view those around me, and likely always will.

2) The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkein

This one is, perhaps, even more of a cliché to have on my favourites list than Middlemarch is, but I’m not sorry. Classics become classics for a reason. I read these straight through (except for brief moments when I was forced to go to school) at the age of about 14. The thing that mystifies and impresses me about Tolkein’s work is that he can do it all: deft characterisation (Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf are among the fictional people I would most like to meet), soaring descriptions of scenery, epic battle scenes… and I cried at the end, and I rooted for them, and I wanted to move to the Shire; I was thoroughly engaged in almost every page. Sometimes I struggle with very long novels; I find that the authors get distracted, or wander off worldbuilding and forget to develop their characters. The whole reason Les Miserables and Eragon don’t rank on this list is that their authors, in very different ways, suffer from this affliction. Tolkein doesn’t, perhaps because he has so many other books and appendices and letters in which he developed his world.

I struggle with the film adaptation of LotR for this reason. There is a lot of source material, certainly, but it’s all relevant. There were things cut out from the films that were essential to the plot. In particular, the scouring of the Shire, at the end of Return of the King, is the climax of both Merry and Pippin’s character development. They are both required to take the lessons they learnt on their quest and use it to defend their home—and it comes almost as second nature for them. For Pippin, I feel that LotR was a coming-of-age story, and to deny him his opportunity to shine and prove that he has grown up—well, it’s rather cruel, that’s all.

3) The Silver Chair by C. S. Lewis

Lots of people say it’s hard for them to pick their favourite of the Chronicles of Narnia. Not so for me. Of course, I love all of them (even The Horse and His Boy, which is often dismissed as boring, and The Last Battle, which gets accused of all sorts of isms), but The Silver Chair is by far and away my best-beloved of the lot.

Reading the Chronicles of Narnia as a Christian allegory, or at least as some pleasant fairy tales with a Christian message, my love for TSC should be explained easily enough. Eustace has long been my favourite character in the books, eclipsing even Lucy; it’s because he’s so human. Eustace has a ‘salvation moment’ or a ‘religious experience’ or whatever you want to call it in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, then gradually his actions and heart attitudes begin to reflect those of Aslan. All very good. This theme is continued into TSC, but in the latter, he has to deal with so much more than he did in the previous book. Before, he was surrounded by his cousins and by seasoned warriors and, of course, by Reepicheep; their faith and the magical mystery nature of their journey buoyed his own. That’s not a criticism—that’s reflective of most Christians’ initial experiences of salvation. In TSC, however, he’s suddenly on his own, accompanied only by a grumpy and miserable girl** who mostly wants to argue with him. He doesn’t even get to see Aslan—instead, he sets out on a mission on the strength of Aslan’s word and because of his faith in Him (and also, of course, because of owls). Faith seems to me to be central to the plot—faith, and the word of God, represented in the Signs from Aslan. It’s only when they deviate from the Signs that they go wrong; even once they go wrong, it’s Puddleglum’s obstinate, illogical, determined faith in Aslan, faith in the face of great opposition, that really turns the story on its head. And that, for me—faith from hearing, and hearing from the Word of God—is the centre of the story, and the reason I love it so very, very much.

 

Well, there you have it. Three books that I love for three very different reasons—characters, mastery of the craft, and faith through hearing and hearing through the Word of God. Perhaps this will give you some idea of what I look for in a book.

 

*You think this is a joke, maybe? I had a crush on my history teacher when I was 13, even though all the cool kids fancied the RE teacher in the room next door. The only reason I can give to account for this crush on a balding, paunchy, middle-aged man—other than the fact that I was 13 and at an all-girls school, where I didn’t have a lot of options—was the fact that he spoke six languages and one of them was Latin. Dorothea’s decisions, whilst unwise, didn’t seem worlds away from me.

**Jill is my second favourite character. I’m not knocking her, and I love the amount of character development that she goes through; her encounter with Aslan is one of my favourite moments in the whole series—but you can’t deny that they argue throughout the whole book.