This is a compelling story, thrilling and captivating, and taking place amid the 17th Century frenzy of blood-letting and tumultuous chaos that was the unthinkable; the English Civil War.
However, I think it is actually a love story.
A story about love of family and love of country. And how they came to be incompatible. How love can become so strong – maybe too strong – and turned to hatred for those you know you should love, but seem not to understand your love. Then how the conflict it unleashes, in the country and within the family, despite everyone’s best intentions turns that love on its head until it leads to hate.
Phew! Weighty themes maybe, but by homing in on one family, the Rivers, and thus mirroring the conflict in the country at large, Giles Kristian weaves a thoroughly satisfying and exciting tale. One that will surely shock and delight in equal measures. But only ‘shock’ if you read this with your 21st Century moral glasses on. This is how life was back then. We can’t be shocked over something people in the 17th Century thought was just how life – and death – was. Certainly, if it was a film, there are passages where you’d look away, but then, someone was actually employed, for goodness-sake, to hang, draw and quarter people. To rip open their chest and remove their heart (check Wikipedia). We can’t judge the 17th Century by our 21st Century standards (they at least had the good grace to kill each other face to face, not while sat in a control room two continents away). So don’t go getting all squeamish and pretend to be shocked. Go get your ‘history’ from Barbara Cartland and Mills and Boon instead, if that’s the case. This how it was, no way around it. This is almost touchably real. There are some graphically harsh passages, yes (‘barsk’ as we say here where I live in Denmark. Possibly also in Norway where Giles is partly from), but this is a vigorous book, about an apocalyptic period for society, for Church, for the State and most of all, for ordinary people and their families. And one with themes that I feel still resonate today.
Each side is of course certain they are right, the other is wrong (sound familiar?) and while the Rivers begin as a tight-knit family of reasonably well-to-do Lancashire land-owners – and supporters of the Crown, we soon see how, from small and seeming innocuous beginnings, their family – and society – implodes as the country explodes with tension and mistrust. And then it spirals out of control.
Giles gives us an excellent insight into how ordinary people were turned into combatants, and got swept away by currents beyond their experience. How they saw the situation at close quarters and merely tried to stay alive. I particularly enjoyed the way he shows how differing viewpoints could spring from the same well of passion and how King-supporting brother could be set against a brother forced away by hate to the Parliamentarian side. How love can turn to passionate, heart-breaking hatred. Then how the period’s deep-seated fears of hidden religious agendas, agent provocateurs, witchcraft and devil-worship, burst through and fear and retribution was given full reign. In a land where a suitable punishment for having the wrong religious beliefs, was to be hung drawn and quartered; anything went.
Yeah, obviously I haven’t a full understanding of how life really was back then. I mean; I’m old, but not THAT old. But ‘The Bleeding Land’ – from what I remember of my studies of this period in English History at school – is surely how life really was (we studied this period through analysing period documents. The period before the Civil War, the Interregnum, then the ‘climb-down’ as we called it, and the re-instatement of the (changed) monarchy to England). It’s a hard-edged book about a hard time. Death easier than life, it seems.
‘The Bleeding Land’ is jam-packed full of the sights and sounds – and smells – of 17th Century English life at its roughest and its rawest, bristling with noisy passions on the edge of reason. Or the abyss – depending on your point of view at the time. A period – as Giles himself notes – people have heard of, but few know much about. Let’s face it, even for people of my generation, most when hearing ‘Cavalier’ will think of a car.
And this is just the mouth-watering start of the Rivers family story. There is surely much more excitement to come.
One more thing: I found the ‘Afterward’ a thought-provoking read. What I came to think of after reading it – and taking it on much further than is probably wise – is that with ‘The Bleeding Land’ and the divisive English Civil War, maybe one can see the start of the polar opposite, two-party system that we had/have in England/Britain and which the Puritans took with them too the USA. Where, if it isn’t white, it must be black. If you aren’t with us, you must be against us. No surprise then, that the US had their own Civil War, I say. As opposed to, as I see it, the much more sensible, cross-party, coalition system of consensus I now enjoy living here in Europe, here in Denmark. It took a bit of getting used to, I can tell you, when I heard that the Government would invite the Opposition to come in and discuss policy the Government was responsible for. But then, they never had their society torn asunder by civil war as England and the (early) US did. They never had to take sides against family and friends. And it shows.
So, as the traditional “We’re 100% right. You’re 100% wrong” US Presidential battle moves on to its depressingly divisive final conclusion in a day’s time, Giles Kristian has written a book about the past, still relevant today. An apocalyptic period for England, for Church, for society; a gift for a writer of Giles Kristian’s tremendous narrative abilities. A period that could possibly have shaped how we are now.