The Needle in the Blood
Written by Sarah Bower
Reviewed by Jodie
Historical fiction seems to be the genre that embraces frank exploration of sexuality and relationships most successfully. Do writers feel liberated by the time that has passed? Does diving under the bed sheets of a stricter time give them the thrill of disobeying dead authority? Do lush historical settings conjure thoughts of detailed intercourse whereas a bench at Brighton calls for quicker narrative thrusts? Whatever the reason historical novels are providing valuable examinations of the sensual, as well as the relationships and consequences that these feelings result in.
Sarah Bower’s The Needle in the Blood is a subtle investigation into what might have been classed as forbidden sexuality in eleventh century Britain, relationships that would have been officially condemned if still slyly permitted in some cases. Set after the battle of 1066, when William the Conqueror took control of Britain, its main subject is the relationship between William’s brother, Bishop Odo and Gytha, an attendant to Edith, the mistress of the late Harold Godwinson. Gytha initially swears to kill Odo because he embodies all she hates about the French and she is given her chance when she is recruited to work on Odo’s legacy, the Bayeux tapestry, by his sister Agatha. After her violent attempt on his life fails something is released Gytha, but also in Odo, allowing love and friendship to grow between them. This relationship, which crosses nationalities and classes is publicly permitted because Odo is the kings brother but this unorthodox affair is the ideal way for his rivals to curb his power.
Other types of prohibited sexuality such as lesbianism, incest and abortion are touched on and are integral to the development of the characters as their understanding is enlarged by each incident. The novel is filled with detail relating the human body, descriptions of everyday tasks such as dressing alongside depictions of sex and the reader grows closer to the characters through the author’s preoccupation with such physical descriptions. It may seem vaguely unnecessary for one of the embroiders to lose a hand but it enables the reader to make a stronger connection with a background character who will have little involvement with the central action. Bowers caring attention gives each person life and enables them to each contribute to the reader’s enjoyment. This book is one of the most intriguing historical novels of the year, detailed like embroidery of the Bayeux tapestry and presenting almost every characters voice, creating a multi-layered narrative like the story it depicts.