05 July, 2006

The Green Branch, by Edith Pargeter. Book review

First published 1962. Edition reviewed: Warner Futura, 1993, ISBN 0-7515-0474-2. Sequel to The Heaven Tree.

Edith Pargeter also writes as Ellis Peters.

The Green Branch is set in Wales and the Welsh Marches in 1228-1231, when Henry III was King of England and Llewellyn ap Iorwerth (also known as Llewellyn Fawr, or Llewellyn the Great) ruled Gwynedd and most of the rest of Wales. The central characters are fictional. Historical figures including Llewellyn, his Norman wife Joan, their son David and the Norman lord William de Breos play significant secondary roles.

The novel continues the story of the master-mason Harry Talvace and his patron Ralf Isambard that was begun in The Heaven Tree.

Harry Talvace the younger, born within a few days of his father’s death, has been raised at the court of Llewellyn Fawr in Gwynedd. His father was the Harry Talvace of The Heaven Tree, master mason and creator of a magnificent church under Isambard’s patronage, who was brutally slain on Isambard’s orders over a point of honour. The younger Harry harbours a compulsive desire for blood-vengeance against Isambard, and worships both Llewellyn Fawr and Llewellyn’s wife Joan. When Harry becomes unwittingly embroiled in the personal and political fallout resulting from Joan’s extramarital affair, he sets off to challenge Isambard in a confused attempt to regain what he sees as his lost honour.

As with The Heaven Tree, the pace of the book is unhurried and the language is rich and evocative. The characters are complex and multifaceted; Harry, ardent, impulsive, adolescent, gradually learning that the world is not centred on him; William de Breos with his charm and vivacity; Joan facing middle age and making a doomed bid to cling to her lost youth. Isambard is perhaps the most complex, still consumed by his hatred for the elder Harry Talvace and taking out his malice on the son with terrifying psychological refinement.

Real historical figures mingle with the fictional characters and events to a far greater extent than in The Heaven Tree. Harry’s actions are inextricably bound up with the disaster of Joan’s adultery and with Llewellyn’s wars. As far as I can tell, the fictional events fit into the gaps between the documented ones, and the fictional characters are influenced by the historical figures rather than the other way round. So, for example, it is a tongue-lashing from Llewellyn that precipitates Harry’s ill-fated attempt at revenge, but I noticed no example where Harry’s actions significantly influenced Llewellyn’s behaviour. I don’t have a problem with the mingling of real and fictional characters in these circumstances, but readers who do may like to take note. However, I did find that the two storylines - Llewellyn’s marriage and Harry’s conflict with Isambard - each distracted me from the other. Although Harry’s attempt to avenge his father is the central plot, I found Joan and Llewellyn at least as interesting and was frustrated to leave them for hundreds of pages*. (This is a personal preference and one I often encounter with novels that feature both real and fictional characters; for me, the real characters often overshadow the fictional, even if they are supposed to be secondary).

I found the plot a little disappointing. This may reflect the novel’s position as the second in a trilogy. Although the back story is woven in, I think it would be hard to comprehend the depth of Isambard’s malice towards the two Harry Talvaces without having read The Heaven Tree. Moreover, the end makes no pretence of ending the story and is clearly only a pause. So The Green Branch is very much the middle book of a trilogy rather than a stand-alone novel. Easily frustrated readers would be well advised to read it in its place, and particularly to have the concluding volume (The Scarlet Seed) to hand before starting this one.

Has anyone else read it?

*Readers who share my interest may like to know that the story of Joan and Llewellyn is told in much greater detail, mainly from Joan’s point of view, in Sharon Kay Penman’s novel Here Be Dragons.

15 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

I have read all three, and thus didn't miss any backstory or future story in the second book. :)

I liked the books well enough - not like, OMG that's teh best books evah, but they made for an interesting read and I felt the time was handled with competence (though I didn't know anything about Welsh history then). I remember I liked Llewellyn and thought Harry was quite a brat through part of the book.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks for the review, Carla! I wasn't aware of this trilogy, and it sounds interesting.

Carla said...

Gabriele - I think I described him as 'adolescent' :-) He is certainly tiresome at times, but then he is only about fifteen and has a lot of growing-up to do. And a hard way to do it.

Susan - glad to be of service. I think they've been recently re-issued in the States so you should have no problem finding them, maybe at a library. I think there's an edition with all three in one volume, which I'd say is definitely the best way to read them. On the basis of two, it's not so much a trilogy as a long book divided into three parts. If you've read Here be Dragons (I know you've read some of Penman's novels), this is a different take on Joan's affair and I found it a convincing one.

Marg said...

These two books certainly sound interesting! Adding to my TBR list!

Sarah said...

Thanks for the review. I don't believe I ever read books 2 and 3 in the trilogy, so I hadn't encountered Joan and Llywelyn in Peters's novels before. I enjoyed book 1 but thought it was rather depressing! I probably should have picked up book 2 right afterward, and read all three together as you said.

Carla said...

Marg - hope you enjoy them, and let us know what you think.

Sarah - I know what you mean; they certainly are quite dark, and Book 2 is just as dark as Book 1. In my case, Book 1 was redeemed by the marvellous descriptions of the church building.

Bernita said...

Read it.
Agree.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I've read The Heaven Tree and enjoyed it, but wasn't tempted to rush on and read the next 2 in the trilogy, although they are on my TBR. I loved Peters' use of language in THT, but I do find her a bit slow when compared to the likes of Sharon Kay Penman. THT was the sort of book I enjoyed when I was reading it, but I wasn't desperate to pick it up each time I put it down - rather like her Brothers of Gwynedd quartet. I felt the same about that.
Your review is interesting though and I'd like to see the relationship between Joan and Llewelyn told from the VP of a different author. Whilst researching the de Braoses online, I came across a letter from Llewelyn to William Marshal II, trying to patch things up (since William de Braose was WM's brother in law, and Llewelyn had had him hanged for adultery with Joan.)
I will move The Green Branch closer to the top of the TBR. Thank you.

Carla said...

Succinct, Bernita!

Elizabeth - I hadn't connected the de Braoses with the Marshals, but it figures now you mention it - it's remarkable how closely interconnected the Marcher families seem to have been with each other and with the Welsh royal houses.

I guess Edith Pargeter might be classified as 'literary' these days because of her use of language. Although her novels have a plot, and usually some sort of theme, and at least one sympathetic character - um - I seem to be talking myself into a corner here. Anyway, her language is lovely, poetic without being self-consciously clever-clever. I know what you mean about the rather stately pace. All the novels of hers that I've read seem to share it, including the Brother Cadfael mysteries. Though I find the 'grip' factor depends on the characters, so I found A Bloody Field By Shrewsbury absorbing because I really liked Hotspur. I haven't read her Brothers of Gwynedd quartet yet, although I do intend to. I rather fell in love with Dafydd and the two Llewellyns in Sharon Penman's Welsh trilogy and haven't been in any hurry to find a different interpretation of them. If that makes any sense?

Gabriele C. said...

The Brothers of Gwynedd quartet is on Amazon.de for 15.50€ (all 4 books in one). I think I should buy that, shouldn't I? :)

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Carla, I loved A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury. For a while I quite languished after Hotspur having read it. At the time of reading, it went onto my 10 out of 10 listing. I think some of hers do have a better grip factor than others. I loved her Cadfael books, but not all of them grabbed me the same. I confess to having a deep crush on Hugh Berenger, so the volumes involving him in more detail were always favourites, especially One Corpse too Many. Did she write The Marriage of Megotta, about Hubert de Burgh's daughter, or am I thinking of another author. That was one I enjoyed, but again, the pace was stately.

Carla said...

Gabriele - that sounds like a very good deal! If you read them, let us know what you think.

Elizabeth - she did write The Marriage of Meggotta, though I haven't read it. I share your fondness for Hugh Berengar :-) I saw the Derek Jacobi TV film of One Corpse Too Many, and I think it was my favourite of the ones I saw (in part because of Hugh), but for some reason I never got round to getting the book.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I'm so with you on Hugh Berenger.

I've my share of novel character crushes. Athos (The Three Musketeers) is a particularly 'bad' one. :)

And a few times a crush go triggered by a movie - anyone remember the Hornblower film with Gregory Peck? Yum. And boy, does that show my age.

Carla said...

Gabriele - yes, I do remember the film, and you'll be pleased to hear you've no competition from me on that front :-) Has the TV mini-series with Ioan Gruffudd (spelling?) as Hornblower made it to Germany? A couple of girls in the office who normally despise 'boy's films' watched that specifically to drool over him.

Gabriele C. said...

Unfortunately not, for I'm well willing to drool over Ioan. :)