It’s my last year of high school. I am studying for my finals, sweating in an unnatural pre-summer heat, having no time to enjoy my last few years of childhood. My results in those finals will determine my future. One of those finals is in History. A thick tome of my country’s history starting around 1400 will need to be memorised. Each comma, each period, each quotation mark. Each fact, date and important historical figure. No room for improvisation in the History finals! Like little parrots, we need to be able to recall the text in minute detail to answer the questions. If we so much as miss a semi-colon, points will be deducted from our score.
2 seconds after my finals, I breathe a sigh of relief: they went really well. I have also instantaneously forgotten everything I’ve spent months “learning”. No important dates are left in my fried brain. No facts, no figures. Just a fervent hope that I never have to pick up that history book again.
Some 20 odd years later…
One of my best friends is an archaeologist but, although she works with a period and a place in history that are completely unrelated to Christianity, the Middle ages etc, she does enjoy reading about them. It was her recommendation that I should read Dissolution by C.J. Sansom. I think it was while we were discussing the disappointing experience I had reading The Name of the Rose earlier this year that she mentioned Sansom’s series about the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, who solves crimes in different settings during the mid 1500s.
I must admit, my childhood history book-related trauma must have manifested itself clearly in my face as I tried to rearrange my features from utter horror to a more situation-appropriate skepticism, because my friend rushed to reassure me that this series was not just a dry listing of historical facts, dates and important historical figures. Well, she should understand my concern. She went through the exact same nightmare.
So I ordered the first book. I received it. I let it sit close to the bottom of my TBR pile for a few weeks while I waited for the right moment when I would suddenly feel an intense desire to read about history again. Oh who am I kidding – I was stalling, hoping the house would get flooded or burn down so that I had an excuse not to read it. Then I pulled myself together, picked the book up and…finished it in 3 days.
Hurrah! This book made history interesting!
As in The Name of the Rose, Shardlake is sent to investigate a murder in a monastery. But that’s where the similarities with The Name of the Rose end. Shardlake, too, has a sidekick, but events are narrated by Shardlake and not the sidekick. Shardlake is acting in his capacity as commissioner for Thomas Cromwell, a driving force for religious reform in England. During this reform, monasteries are stripped of their wealth and religious artefacts to ensure a healthy cash flow into the King’s pockets. More importantly, political games are being played and innocent people become pawns – and die.
In the monastery, Shardlake tries to solve the puzzle of the murder of the former commissioner who was sent there, but he uncovers that a lot more is afoot.
The characters are distinct, the surroundings alive and slightly claustrophobic, and the murder mystery at the core of the book very, well, mysterious. Red herrings, false accusations, uncertainty, treason, all make for an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust. And poverty, so much poverty. This is why I liked the book so much: without sacrificing the plot (which, by the way, was the least interesting thing about the books for me, but a good vehicle for everything else), it manages to raise questions about class, religion, politics and more, and it does all that without hitting you over the head with it. It made me want to find out more about that time in history. That’s how they should teach history in schools: make it relevant. Make us care about those people. Make it real. Make students curious. And make the connection to current events so that we can learn from it.
Anyway, long story short: this was a deceptively fun book with a rich undercurrent of historical information and social commentary. I don’t think I’ve suddenly started loving history or anything, but I will be reading more of the books in the series. Trust your friends when they recommend books, even if you think they’re nuts!