13 April, 2013

Kingdom of Shadows, by Barbara Erskine. Book review

First published 1988. Edition reviewed, Harper 2009, ISBN 978-0-00-728866-3. 715 pages

Kingdom of Shadows is a time-slip novel set in Scotland and England with two intertwined plots, one set in about 1290 to 1314, one set in the 1980s. The historical plot centres on Robert Bruce and Isobel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, with other historical figures including Isobel’s husband the Earl of Buchan and Robert’s queen Elizabeth de Burgh featuring as secondary characters.  All the characters in the modern plot are fictional.

In 1980s Britain, Clare Royland inherits Duncairn Castle, a (fictional) romantic ruin on the north-east coast of Scotland, from her beloved aunt Margaret Gordon. The castle has been in the Gordon family for over seven hundred years and Clare, like her aunt, feels a powerful connection to Duncairn and to its earlier owner, Isobel Countess of Buchan, a family ancestor who played a tragic role in the Scottish Wars of Independence. But Clare’s husband Paul, a ruthless and distinctly dodgy financier in the City of London, sees Duncairn first as a nuisance and then, when an American oil company bids to buy the land, as a potential solution to his secret financial problems.  When Clare refuses the American oil company’s offer, Paul tries to make her sell Duncairn, by persuasion, fraud and force.  Meanwhile, Neil Forbes, a Scottish environmental campaigner, is organising a campaign to oppose both the sale of Duncairn and drilling for oil.  He and Clare are on the same side, but for different reasons, and Neil initially regards Clare as an enemy.  As the pressure on her builds, Clare experiences increasingly vivid visions of Isobel’s life, as though Isobel can somehow call to her from the distant past.  Is Isobel’s tragedy about to repeat itself through Clare?

I first read Kingdom of Shadows years ago.  I was reminded of it more recently when I read The Lion Wakes, because both novels feature Isobel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, as a major character and involve a (probably fictional*) love affair between her and Robert Bruce, though that’s about the only similarity between them.  Kingdom of Shadows is a full-blown (and, at over 700 pages, ‘full’ is the operative word) Gothic romance, packed with menace, drama, passionate love and equally passionate hatred, with vaguely supernatural forces looming in the background.  The first time I read it, I remember finding the supernatural aspects irritating, so much so that I ended up skimming through quite a lot of the novel.  This time I treated it as a fantasy novel creating a world of its own that happens to have some similarities with late twentieth-century and early fourteenth-century Britain, and that worked much better for me. 

Isobel (Isabel, Isabella) MacDuff’s story, what little of it is recorded in history, is itself the stuff of tragic romance.  She was a member of the MacDuff family of Fife, who had the hereditary right to crown Scottish monarchs.  Although her husband John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, was a senior member of the Comyn family, enemies and political rivals of the Bruce family, Isobel crowned Robert Bruce when he seized the Scottish throne in 1306.  This conferred some traditional legitimacy on Robert’s rather hurried coronation, which may lie behind the harshness of the punishment later inflicted on Isobel by Edward I of England.  (I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers for readers who are not familiar with the history, so I won’t spell out what happened to her here; anyone who wants to find out can look it up on Wikipedia).  

The modern plot in Kingdom of Shadows has to go into overdrive to live up to the dramatic events of Isobel’s true story.  It reminded me of a rather over-the-top Eighties TV drama series, with its ostentatious wealth, corporate double-dealing, insider trading, fraud, blackmail, family secrets, deceit, abduction, suicide and attempted murder.  I gave up trying to keep track of all the double-crossing and fraud, and also got rather lost among Paul Royland’s collection of rich and mostly rather unappealing relatives and City colleagues.  If the financial wheeler-dealing background to Clare’s tale is intended as a sort of modern analogy to the turbulent power politics in fourteenth-century Scotland that form the background to Isobel’s tale, it has the appropriate level of dizzying complexity.

On this re-read, I was struck by the degree of allegory between Clare’s storyline and Isobel’s.  Not just in the broad parallels between the situations of the two women – controlling husbands, a love triangle, the need to make a stand – but also in details.  Sometimes the effect is quite powerful, as in their shared experience of imprisonment.  At other times I found the allegory a bit heavy-handed for my taste.  For example, both women are subjected to religious rituals by clerical brothers-in-law; and in the historical plot Robert Bruce has an Irish wife, Elizabeth de Burgh daughter of the Earl of Ulster, so the romantic hero of the modern plot, environmentalist Neil Forbes, is duly given an Irish girlfriend. I wonder if Clare’s passivity, which was another feature that irritated me first time round, was also there in the interests of creating parallels between her situation and Isobel’s. Isobel lived in a time when women, even wealthy high-born women, had very few rights. Clare has lived a very sheltered life, a beautiful rich girl who married straight from school, has always been dependent either on her parents or her husband and has never had to take her own decisions, and so she is easily pushed around by other people. Similarly, the unpleasant portrayal of Isobel’s husband may owe more to allegory with Clare’s abusive husband in the modern storyline than to the historical John Comyn.  The historical Isobel clearly disagreed politically with her husband on at least the matter of Robert Bruce’s coronation, but as far as I know nothing is known of their personal relationship except that the marriage had no surviving children, which could be interpreted in many different ways.  

The writing style is heavy on detail – I didn’t feel I really needed a description of Clare’s outfit almost every time she makes an appearance – and some of the descriptions of Clare’s nightmares and visions of Isobel border on the repetitive. The pace picks up in the last 200 pages or so as the various sub-plots involving Clare’s friends and relatives either fall by the wayside or converge on the main plot.  Atmosphere and landscape are conveyed well, especially at Duncairn with its mystical connection to both women.

A useful map at the front of the book shows the major locations in the tale, including the fictional Duncairn, and a very brief Historical Note outlines Isobel’s known history.

Gothic time-slip romance based on the tragic history of Isobel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan, during the Scottish Wars of Independence, interwoven with and paralleled by a tale about her fictional descendant Clare Royland in 1980s Britain.

*’Probably’ fictional because although there were allegations of an affair between Isobel and Robert Bruce in hostile contemporary chronicles, these may have been no more than inventions by political enemies.


Rick said...

This time I treated it as a fantasy novel creating a world of its own that happens to have some similarities with late twentieth-century and early fourteenth-century Britain, and that worked much better for me.

Seems like a sensible approach!

I could understand a certain amount of costume porn in describing characters in the early 14th century - for characters in the 1980s, not so much. In fact, and as you hint, the 1980s rather struggles to compete with the era 1290-1314.

Carla said...

Rick - I have a feeling that it was (maybe still is?) a fashion to have lots of clothing descriptions in contemporary novels, perhaps because it's supposed to help define characters. Certainly Clare's wardrobe indicates her wealthy station in life. Apart from the fur coat, which does play a key role in the plot, they seemed incidental to me - but then, as I got into the habit of skipping the outfit descriptions, I may have missed something.

Yes, the 1980s does struggle a bit to compete with the Wars of Independence, but that's understandable! For one thing, Countess Isobel was right at the centre of major political events, which Clare isn't, and for another, the Wars of Independence were an extreme example of 'interesting times' in the Chinese curse sense.