Monday, August 2, 2010

The Waste Land by Simon Acland

The Waste Land: An Entertainment
Written by Simon Acland
Charlwood Books
384 pages
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

Underneath the title of this book on its front cover are the words An Entertainment. The reader is therefore given a clear message that this book is meant to be just that, perhaps not to be taken too seriously and to be read with enjoyment and pleasure. As this reader did.

The author used to be a venture capitalist. His company was sold in 2007 and he took the opportunity to turn to writing. As you do. Apparently Simon Acland studied thirteenth French Grail romances at University from whence stems his interest in the myths and legends surrounding the Holy Grail. For this I am most grateful and also grateful to the capital ventures as I am making the assumption that they have enabled him to write this terrific book for our delight.

The Waste Land opens in St Lazarus College where the Master is waiting the arrival of the Best Selling Author (always referred to in this way and with capital letters too), an erstwhile member of the university who has written several successful books. As the BSA (which is how I will refer to him from now on), was not a brilliant student or academically gifted it rather sticks in the craw that he is being welcomed in this way, but times is hard and money is needed and the Master is rather hoping the BSA will gift a donation to prop up the college. Hence the invitation and the dinner.

It soon becomes clear that this is a misplaced hope as the BSA does not appear to have any money to spare at all and also admits "I seem to have run out of ideas. I can't get any good plots going". And then up pipes the disfigured and insignificant Research Assistant who reveals that he has made an extraordinary discovery in the library.

"I found a parchment manuscript, written partially in old Greek, insterspered with medieval was stuck in the middle of an unintersting seems to be the journal of some Crusader monk who claims to have discovered the truth of the Holy Grail. It is an extraordinary story, as gripping as anything that our honoured guest has ever devised"

The Master seizes on this as an answer to their problem "the manuscript, college property of course, could provide our friend here with his new plot. He will write it in his inimitable style and share the royalties with the college...."

And off we go. The story of Hugh de Verdon, monk turned knight, during the historical events of the First Crusade is totally fascinating and gripping. The Crusades, supposedly a Holy War (where have we heard that before) was bloody and brutal and the narrative is in the first person so we have Hugh's thoughts and feelings on his adventures. As a young boy he had been placed in a monastery by his mother who had been widowed and suffered the death of her other two sons in battle and wishes Hugh to avoid such a fate. He is here for several years but as he reaches maturity he yearns to leave and go to battle, to fall in love, to experience real life and eventually gets his wish when he joins the company of Godfrey de Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine and finds himself, initially employed as a secretary cum scribe to his master and then, later, a fighting knight with his own horse, suit of armour and privileges.

Then the story really takes off and we follow Hugh on his journey to the Holy Land, his love for Blanche (yes there is a beautiful heroine as well), his involvement in the political machinations between Godfrey and his brothers, his daring escapades and then the eerie experience of falling into the hands of "Hasan i Sabbah, Grand Master of the Nizaris, Lord of the Assassins known by some as the Old Man of the Mountains"
"His white robes hung down behind like the wings of some vast snowy owl. A cruel hooked nose beaked from his face between two hooded black eyes...........the black centre of each eye was ringed by a bizarre yellow circle inside the iris, accentuating the whole impression of some great bird of prey".

Hasan spends his life in his library, reading and learning, sending his Assassins out to do his bidding and he has decided after reading Ovid - Metamorphoses that it contains the recipe used by Medea to give Jason's father new life and vigour. "Allah has sent me the perfect subject on which to test this experiment. Tomorrow we shall try Medea's medicine out on you".

Right, I am going to stop here else I will be setting out the entire plot and story and this post will be very long indeed. You need to get a copy and read it yourself. I loved this book. I will be honest and say I wasn't totally sure when it dropped through my letter box, but if there is one thing I have learned over four years of Random Jottings, it is that I should not make hasty judgments. Pretty sure I have discarded some books that were worth my attention in the past so I am more careful these days and so I gave the Waste Land my total concentration and was well rewarded.

It is exciting and thrilling and Simon Acland is steeped in this period of history and really knows his stuff. The Crusades and Crusaders are a fascinating subject and have this romantic aura about them which we know is misplaced, but this lingers on. I think we have been rather blinkered as to their brutal reality by the capture of King Richard, the minstrel Blondel, Robin Hood etc etc so that the Crusades have this air of glamour and derring do attached when, in reality, it was all pretty vile and self seeking as most wars, holy or otherwise, turn out to be.

And yet, despite my knowing all this, I simply reveled in this book and enjoyed every page and what made it even more enjoyable was the juxtaposition of the narrative of Hugh de Verdon and the internal squabbling and jealousies of the Fellows of St Lazarus. The research assistant soon rues the day he mentioned his discovery and watches while his find and hopes of academic glory are taken away and sacrificed to the financial needs of the college. Events in the story begin to mirror events in the university, the near death of the BSA in an accident, another fellow being burned to death in his bed, another with mysterious stomach pains which turn out to be poison - who is behind it all? The police are called in and as I have been recently reading the crime novels of Edmund Crispin set in Oxford with the professor and sleuth, Gervase Finn, this added to the pleasure of my reading of this book.

The story of Hugh could have stood well on its own as a straightforward historical novel but the author has added an extra dimension to the Waste Land by this device. It is also witty and funny and comes as a refreshment to the reader who has become totally immersed in the dreadful brutality of the war and Hugh's own sufferings. The ending leaves the door open for the Best Selling Author to write a sequel to the successful outcome of this plan by the Master of the College and I am delighted to see that this will be forthcoming, The Flowers of Evil. I await my review copy in due course.........

Hugely enjoyable, engrossing and engaging from start to finish I loved this book and it will be going on my list of Best Reads of 2010. I like the conceit behind it all and the slight tongue in cheek style in the depiction of the squabbles and pettiness of the Dons, each certain in his own intelligence and superiority to his Fellows. Last year I dined in Hall at St John's in Cambridge and, while I found all the Fellows I met there to be delightful and charming, I could not help but think about them when reading the Waste Land.

Wonderful stuff and do check out this link below - the author talking about his book. Fun and he is dressed as a Crusader as well.....


Heather said...

Wow Elaine! This sounds amazing! I'm going to get my hands on it, everything about it sounds excellent. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Eva said...

This sounds like such fun! If you enjoy Crusades lit, have you read Alamut by Judith Tarr? It's so good, and it's doesn't glorify the European side. ;)