Pursuing natural health & thinking beyond the superficial. Deconstructing Culture.

Honoré de Balzac Sarrasine French Edition

Setting the scene

‘Thus, at my right was the depressing, silent image of death; at my left the decorous bacchanalia of life; on the one side nature, cold and gloomy, and in mourning garb; on the other side, man on pleasure bent. And, standing on the borderland of those two incongruous pictures, which repeated thousands of times in diverse ways, make Paris the most entertaining and most philosophical city in the world, I played a mental macedoine[*], half jesting, half funereal. With my left foot I kept time to the music, and the other felt as if it were in a tomb. My leg was, in fact, frozen by one of those draughts which congeal one half of the body while the other suffers from the intense heat of the salons—a state of things not unusual at balls.

Its language really is beautiful, intimate and candid charting the observations and thoughts of a guest cum voyeur at a well-to-do party where the reader gets to be privy to things that the guests are just barely concealing from each other. It is classic literature akin to Victorian/Edwardian.

Thankfully at no point did I need to dip my hand into my figurative holster and pull out my trusty though falling apart dictionary when reading this story though as you can see above the language is very descriptive, atmospheric and metaphorical. I’m at an age of I dunno somewhere on the crustier side of Oscar the Grouch but a smidgen younger than Daria and so my past love for the classics is less enthusiastic than it used to be, and so from the onset I feared the language might just be too descriptive and consistently so to the point of boring or putting me off. Get to the point before I roll my eyes (you say)?

But that is the point! For some reason I felt compelled to keep reading, the descriptions of the surroundings and incumbents were immersing me gently and then all of a sudden the game was afoot! Amongst all the chatter going on regarding the mysterious past of the family throwing the lavish ‘do’ there was another, even more intriguing mystery about one of household members in particular. Their wealth assured the family’s acceptance into high society and provided welcome distraction not to mention parties such as this for their guests to parasite upon. Where the mother, son and daughter were embodiments of fortune, charm, beauty, talents and generally endless attraction and the father at least smart there was a person of extremely opposing image and seeming character – the “old man” for whom the gossip consisted mostly of folklore-ish comparisons and even discomfort.

A touch of Gothic horror?

The author inspired many other authors including those of the classic hair tingling horror persuasion such as Edgar Allen Poe and in his descriptions of the mysterious member of the family I can see why. The perceptions and reactions this character receives are nothing short of theatrical in their suspicion, fear and awe yet gentle but still scared tenderness and devotion from the family. The character is both fragile and imposing, a wretched creature wrapped in the decadence of finery royalty would be envious of but all that adornment is in stark contrast to the bodily visage. The mannerisms, raspy voice and weakness in general, a person with so many wrinkles and stooped shuffling about and needing both attention and affection but causing repulsion and anxiety. An ungodly, un-earthly, pitiful sufferance.

Nowadays I don’t like so much description but the language flows and details the the picture and characters without needing to give them much dialogue. The narrator gives them colour, characterizing those around with sharp contrasts and making astute observations. And then…

And then…

I got tired.

*Sigh* it was inevitable. Seriously, stop describing every single thing, every movement, every sound as if experiencing it for the first time. The plot moves at good pace surprisingly enough but still.

At this point I was beginning to wonder about the narrator’s and his companion’s age, he obviously has great sensory prowess, his observations are graphically embedded in his mind but they do seem immature in their defensiveness and touchy sensitivity, but then that doesn’t just apply to the young. Either way it’s tiresome in real life let alone to read.


So what to do? The author did the best thing and got to the main part and it’s very topical indeed.

The narrator relates the story of Sarrasine after being questioned about a statue/relic and its origins. Sarrasine was every bit the stereotypical ‘artistic temperament’ he both shot and suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and feeling being extremely talented, introverted and easily bored. His father and teachers were frustrated with him and he was taken on as apprentice to a famous artist who knew exactly how to soothe the savage beast. He quickly met success and moved on but it was to his detriment and he had not matured from his tumultuous state and having little in the way of social skills.

As befitting his disposition he suddenly and passionately fell in ‘love’ with a beautiful and wondrous singer called Zambinella and on top of the usual impact celebrity glamour has coupled with the star being an illuminated and bedazzling spectacle on stage he was overwhelmed by these new feelings. The hypnotic vision, his naivete and imagination bewitched him and like any artist and muse he’s inspired into a frenzy to create an idol worthy of Zambinella’s perfection whilst attending her performances religiously.

But as in any such tale there are great impediments, beauty is owned, controlled and abused and the rescuer made only more determined when warned off as Sarrasine is regarding the cruel reality of his beloved’s situation, well, before he finds out all of it. Is he really the ‘rescuer’ and Zambinella does indeed need rescuing – but due to his ego, immaturity and violent personality/behaviour he hopes and is excited by a ‘life and death’ romantic drama where there must be a fight in order to prove himself and be victorious of the prize. Be careful what you wish for.

The rest of the story within the story is extremely sad, tragic and most eloquently moving.

Battle of the Sexes

To expound on the theme a little bit, the main moral conundrum presented in the book asks what makes a man/woman and is romantic love conditional on that? Androgyny, hermaphrodites, homosexuality and bi-sexuality were obviously not alien in ancient civilizations, there are many cases of gender bending and indeed perhaps to the surprise of many afterwards there was an elitist perspective towards male homosexuality in the upper Grecian echelons as the ‘superior love’, the ideal love as men were superior and mating with women was more of a practical necessity. Ganymede/effeminate men have always had their poetic place as well in the higher and artistic circles whereas lesbians have not really had the same adulation (more used/seen as titillation) but also neither the same hatred not in the Western civilizations anyway. Sexual mutilation was and is common for both and this story of star crossed lovers brought and brings to light the some of tragedy it can bring and in hindsight how long such issues can last.

I’ve previously mentioned ‘original gender’ on the blog – it’s a concept in some cultures of a single sex, it was ‘feminine’ but not necessarily as we think of it because we are no longer one sex. Basically ‘its’ called feminine because of the motherhood connotations of creation and because genetically we all start out ‘female’ and if the XX mutates into an XY we get the ‘male’. So the theory goes that ‘children’ were created asexually or through divine blessing e.g. all those stories of babes from plants and later all creatures got ‘split’ via some kind of intervention but as with anything a few ‘abnormalities’ meant some were androgynous and some hermaphrodite, that applies to emotionally as well as physically. Even though this is barely remembered the ramifications remained relevant to society even today for all types of sexuality but due to prejudice especially so-called ‘alternate’ orientations. I’m mentioning this (and it’s usually hidden by most religion and even in circles of those who study religion and mythology because it relates to the root cultures not the empires) because in its way this book also talks about gender equality though more in terms of the psyche.

The story cleverly implies that in truth whilst people understand the act of intercourse they don’t often understand sexuality let alone gender or sexual orientation and if we don’t understand ourselves we perhaps are not understanding each other (or vice versa depending on the individual). The book initially shows the lopsided narrator, a male who feels both hamstrung yet enjoys the volatile feelings his position brings but then it turns on its head with a male apparently sure of his feelings only to be confronted by someone who is struggling to live with the changes in sexuality imposed upon them.

Castration has been carried out over the years for many reasons, in this case Zambinella is a thespian that was castrated pre-puberty to ensure the voice did not break. I will refrain from saying ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘s/he’ because it’s unclear how or what Zambinella considers their sex to be, if any, we know the gender is a she but that’s it. This particular practice was to create an ‘ultra feminine’ voice more likely to reach the higher ranges, seen in the usual elitist way as superior it continued it finally went out of fashion and women were allowed/became common features on stage. Many think very linearly when it comes to ‘men’ and ‘women’ and the conflict between but when it comes down to it people have been manipulated into not realizing that there have been and are those that who’ve been experimenting/’creating’/tampering with others to their own interest/ideas/ideals of sexuality and castration is one of those methods. Whether they care or not about the effects this has on people the author of this book did or least was aware of those that did and illustrated it via this method expertly describing the deformities that ensues when carried on prepubescents. Why the author chose this method? I don’t know.


“Crime and infamy have a right of asylum here; virtue alone is without altars.”

In likeness to the topsy turvy nature of the subject interestingly I’ve ended up writing this part at the close rather than the beginning… Sarrasine was a novella written by Honoré de Balzac (20 May 1799 – 18 August 1850 – eek look at the date, I started writing this review randomly yesterday due to a competition), French novelist and playwright, it was published in 1830 and later became the first in his extensive and socio-politically poignant ‘La Comédie Humaine’ series.

The book is relatively short and contains quite a number of cultural (literature/art) references well suited to its raconteur narrative. If subject to modern tastes and editing could have been much shorter but I think it’s fine for its genre and can be read quite easily and quickly which is a feat considering the first half is mostly somebody’s internal monologue and as such could have sounded more like one of those scenes in some operas where everybody’s singing different lines at the same time competing to be heard ending up a confusing mess.

It’s one of those stories that can be easily overlooked or discarded due to impatience early on yet it is enchanting and thankfully I reached its revelations and managed to review it. I hope I’ve managed to if not emulate hopefully compliment this text and from what I’ve seen in a way that is different and perhaps eye opening as it deserves.

*Macedoine is a card game.

Be a Millionaire Day

So today is World Meteorology Day and Be a Millionaire Day; I’m not in the mood to talk about the former (although it seems the day was indented for the sake of unity in uniform measurement – which I’m not necessarily into), not even astronomy or cosmology so I’m going for the latter.

I always figured “if I had the money” and since I’m not a prick or greedy that means a lot less than a million (but still sky high nigh almost impossible or at least astronomical in odds to the likes of me) I’d be doing more than just consistently evaluating my lifestyle, trying to live by example and helping. Like many I figured I’d “do more” but more what? Ok I’ve had many ‘standout’ ideas on top of the default more giving/donation, more teaching, more environmentally friendly, more DIY (mum and I have always makeshifted well and our energy use tiny but having as many engineering, building, carpentry, tailoring, plumbing, mechanic skills is always better in this world) etc but in the last 7-ish years I was inspired by an eatery brand layout called EV (part of a chain called Taz).

The layout consists of three eateries next to each other; a salad bar cum health shop where they make fresh bread, pastries, cakes and of course loads of different salads (Anatolian, Turkish, Lebanese style so not the boring or artery clogging condiment or digestive rotting meat or lacto egg heavy Western types many think of as ‘salad’ – or even ‘veg’ which just tends to be side or individual & few types of vegetables, not creative or interesting let alone healthy…) Next to that is the restaurant and next to that the bar – so an environment for different moods, settings and times. All had great bright and airy yet intimate interiors; the salad bar was more ‘Earthy’ with gorgeous wooden furniture and rustic colours, the restaurant more chic and classy yet still continuing with the trailing plants (and frog art hmm) and the bar more contemporary but all had traditional details incorporated really well (and a modern ‘Moroccan-esque’ bathroom).

So basically I figured I liked the different functions of each place but really interested in the salad/health bar and bakery. I’d make one (with different interiors – can’t copy lol – though I haven’t thought of them) even more functional. I’d try to keep the holistic feel and would use the place as a ‘soup kitchen’ in ‘closing time’ but obviously wouldn’t turn down homeless in regular hours and would have a special discount service with delivery for local people such as the elderly, less mobile and nurseries/pre-schools. Obviously the place would be vegan and would have to based in an area to grow and access the kind of variety you find in ‘ethnic’ areas where small supermarkets and markets easily outdo and outsell the big chain supermarkets when it comes to fruit, veg, herbs, nuts and seeds (and in much bigger sizes from fresh to preserved). I remember Turkish shops selling various olives considered delicacies even in London – not the rubbery, small, almost bland, pitted or badly preserved ones found on standard pizzas et al – for £4 and then later £5 a kilo and yes I bought’em in bulk and they lasted months and then shock horror! At one of the temporary outdoor exhibition/foodie fests at the Southbank (posh side) they were selling them for £20 a kilo!!! Even the more common stuffed ones! :o They had the audacity to say because they were selling by weight it was fair and people agreed with them! So a portion of olives costs you £6 quid… I’m not even going on to the preserved ginger.

I’m thinking the growing area might be turned into or extended to a community organic scheme so people can help grow the food as well as their own subsidized or free. I wanted to have more than just the ‘soup kitchen’ element i.e. a hostel too for both temp and longer term stay and maybe assistance to independence but maybe I’m thinking too big and expensive *sigh*. Oh well better to daydream, plan and do good things than the usual waking and sleeping nightmares.

Great song, great film though I wouldn’t spend it stupidly on the big house(s) which are fun but I only think of them as ok when thinking about everybody having them (I already picked one or two out in a one of award posts previously but prefer cob houses or homes built into the landscape not plonked on top it ‘I’m the king of the castle’ style – those are only really nice for looking at and design interest), or walk heck live-in boutique like closets, masses of media and ‘toys’, vehicles etc of the brain cell damaged and generally mentally challenged control freaks. It’s uplifting and helpful to look stylish/attractive but it has to have REAL substance, it has to be ethical and have meaning. I like brains, beauty, brawn and brilliance – not the bimbo way of life, survival or showing off and neediness.

Jerry Lewis was one of my favourite comedians as a kid and Cinderfella (1960) was my favourite film of his alongside The Nutty Professor (1963), to me it displayed all his best acting traits whilst taking a well known story and freshening it up. I watched it again recently and it hasn’t lost any of its charm, great for people who like parody or fun and creative family friendly films :-) Funnily enough I only ever really liked his solo films sans Dean Martin and that hasn’t changed over time!


Ok so you know the Disney version of Cinderella (1950) but Cinderfella did more than just change the sex of the main character…

We first see the last will and testament of his father (not mother as you would expect here) being read to the stepmother and her two sons and Fella is apparently in another room looking out at the pouring rain. The Bel-Air style mansion and all ‘worldly goods’ are left the stepmother in faith that she will take care of her stepson… Yeah we know how that goes in fairytales.

Cut to years into the future and we see ‘mother dearest’ using the intercom from her very Disney like bedroom to Fella sleeping in a storage looking room where it looks like items are just there for the sake of it and his tiny mattress doesn’t even fit the bed. Strangely he’s wearing two large rings but those are quickly overshadowed by the speed in which he has to get ready and go to the kitchen to make breakfast for everybody. His place in the family is further exemplified as we see his room is at the end of a very long, lavish corridor but when it reaches his part all the decoration ends! Servants quarters indeed.

Cinderfella bedroom

The usual being bossed about, belittling and lecturing ensues – he can’t do anything right, doesn’t show his appreciation for being ‘given room and board out of the goodness of her heart’, he ‘doesn’t have a cent to his name’, has ‘ordinary blood in his veins’ etc etc. Perhaps luckily for him he actually enjoys housework and fixing things (though he’s not very good at the latter) and all those unkind and deceptive words seem to slide off him, but they don’t.

By this point we’ve already been shown the not-so-ugly but actually very suave, debonair and manicured stepbrothers (one of which could actually be a moving mannequin), and the plot swiftly moves on to the ball the stepmother is holding at the house for Princess Charming (pronounced ‘Charmaine’). Determined everything will go right and one of mummy’s little darlings will marry well. I don’t know why there is a stepmother and not a stepfather but the former are very much embedded as evil characters in Disney-fied fairytales so perhaps they thought they couldn’t change that but I think for a gender bending film they could of undid the prejudice and gone for a villain instead of a villainess.

Usher in the fairy godfather – and whose high pitched yet nasal voice many of us will know from other films – floating on the swimming pool in a classic stripped swimming cozzy and bowler hat, wacky indeed. He’s worried that Fella doesn’t have any ambitions because he thinks one day Fella might be a very important person.


The noblesse oblige ‘do’ they’re holding will cost a bomb and really stretch their assets it seems (though we know what that means for many i.e. their version of being hungry and homeless after over extending themselves are still nice hotels, long visits to friends, lot’s of credit and not really suffering at all) but still it’s imperative that they purloin more funds so they can maintain their lifestyle. Where will these funds come from? Ahh well that’s the problem, this next extortion from Fella won’t be so easy the key is in his memory, his dreams to be exact in which his late father is telling him the location of a secret fortune. How on Earth are they going to get that? They decide to change tactics and be nice for once! Shock! Yes it is, they’re so bad at pretending to be nice it’s cringeworthy; their fake smiles are creepy and it looks like their faces will crack in the effort, they’ve never complimented his cooking so it really affects him and then they try to wear him out as much as possible (even moreso than with his usual chores) by sharing hobbies with him. Does it work? And just how crooked are those brothers!?

Cinderfella fake family

Cinderfella dining room hypocrisy

They’re really being nice eh… Plus his meal is poverty plain whilst they get the full works which he cooked.

Another interesting feature in this film is that the fairy godfather introduces Fella to another of his clients, Disney’s Cinderella! A ravishing and indeed roaring (you have to see it to believe it) Cindy who really makes a great appearance in this tribute movie and gives Fella her support.


Time for a ball? Fella is locked in his room and ‘the family’ (very mafia tone inserted there) have hired a fleet of staff to do all the work, that way they won’t be interrupted or embarrassed by ‘that lunatic’. Poor Cinders I mean Fella, will he ever make it to the ball and perhaps even destiny? Will the fake family’s poor attempts at politeness last against their wicked ways?


Jerry Lewis always seemed to play confused, diamond in the rough and dare I say ‘needy’ characters or characters in need and having seen the made-for-tv biography Martin and Lewis (2002) it seems he was one of those actors that played what he knew best – a version(s) of himself. Needless to say he plays this part very well and in his signature style.

The Wicked Stepmother (played by Dame Judith Anderson) – plays a stoic, refined, cutting, hypocritical, bossy b(r)itch(es) who fawns over her beloved sons very well. Her clear, sharp tones were made for commanding.

Two Tailored Twits, the older brother Rupert (played by Robert Hutton) and the younger Maximilian (Henry Silva) obviously spend a lot of the time in the salon/spa and playing sports with peers; they’re every bit the cocky, pampered, spoiled, spying and demanding duo but just not ugly or uncultured ;-)

Princess Charming (played by Anna Maria Alberghetti) reminds me somewhat of Audrey Hepburn and as part of the revamp gets more of an emotional part than Prince Charming. She not only dances and clutches a shoe well but is not just a wooden doll, she tells Fella that she feels, she’s a person and it’s not her fault that people see her as her title/namesake and she’s convincing, she even cries.

The effervescent and quirky Fairy Godfather (played by Ed Wynn the ‘Mad Hatter’ in Alice in Wonderland (1951) and ‘Uncle Albert’ in Mary Poppins (1964) delivers his lines characteristically well and matches Lewis with his own funky facial expressions.

Anti-Feminist? Nah.

There’s one point where the fairy godfather goes into a diatribe about women; the women who wrote history, the women behind and effected by the Cinderella story, ordinary women’s expectations, follies and all those poor men. However it is ironic like the nature of the film and another twist on ‘his-story’ but also includes some interesting observations about people in general as they are rather than twisted. It’s particularly funny (not if you were in the scene or Fella) though that he says in order to right all the uneven and unfair doings of womankind that the ‘big Him’ in the sky and various societies working for ‘Him’ elected to choose a male example to tip the balance and make up for it but instead of a ‘tall, handsome’ honey that they all wanted the fairy godfather chose Fella instead. “He’s not tall, not handsome, anything but clever” he’s just ordinary – though quite frankly Lewis never really was ordinary in my opinion even as Fella ;-).

An interesting political insert that the Disney 50s version didn’t have and I also liked that in this version Cinderella oops I mean Fella realizes s/he’s being abused, tries to pull her/himself up by the bootstraps taking a cynical tone to stand up for her/himself. That change doesn’t last but it’s ok because the character doesn’t really want to be angry or aggressive but it was needed at the time.

Songs and Music

This isn’t your usual musical, the songs just flow into the filming and some are spoken-sung so it doesn’t feel like you’re being hit full in the face with a big sing-a-long theatre number out of nowhere, they’re shorter too. My favourite is probably the shortest ‘Let Me Be A People’ where he explains that he likes being a regular ‘people’ and feels sorry for ‘persons’ who are people of importance and my second is actually an instrumental that he mimes playing the instruments to in the kitchen (and mime is a tough art to make look interesting!) Most of the numbers have a jazzy feel to them and very much in keeping with their time although I think still have a contemporary feel. Additionally there are a couple of soft, heartfelt songs captured perfectly well with the surrounding visuals and mood.

Aside from the obvious numbers there is a fair bit of lovely classical either as excerpt sound effects or in the background. The big band numbers at the ball are particularly impressive especially ‘that’ scene where Lewis make’s his dramatic debut down the stairs to the shock of all assembled.

That epic stair scene, funky dance and clock striking midnight.

Overall Finish

This film is one of the better produced ‘light hearted’ films of the time in my opinion, everything comes together really well from the score to the costumes, nothing feels too gaudy or out of place – not even Lewis’ kooky, slapstick style! The colour is vibrant and rich, the details are well thought out from fixtures and fittings to entire scenes, the dialogue is clever and moving and the updating of the Disney-version really makes this something worth seeing and remembering. Great film :-)


Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1988) – another revamped version of the story in which Drew Barrymore and Prince Charming’s characters are developed more. The part where Fella tries to act with self confidence reminded me of this film though understandably not to the same extent as this has a more serious tone.

Rags to Riches (1987) – A rich businessman adopts 5 orphans as a PR stunt for a merger and has no intention of raising them but through no fault of their own they end up raising hell for his work but he learns to love them. More of a musical than Cinderfella.

Lastly is a film I can’t remember or find the title for and maybe one of you know it – an old Black & White film in which a young lady wins some money, quits her job and goes to the ‘big city’ to spend it all whilst pretending to be high society. There she meets an annoying bellboy who keeps getting sacked who turns out to be a prince in disguise.

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The First English Translation of a Medieval Arab Fantasy Collection Published: Penguin Classics, Nov 2014 Hardback, 496 pages Translated by Malcolm C. Lyons This is a collection of 18 short stories found in an incomplete manuscript in Istanbul and presented in 1933, it is thought to be dated between the 14th-16th centuries but the authorship […]

‘One of the snobbiest places in Britian’ to some for the uber affluence and rejection of an argos store – perhaps they countered that with the massive 99p Store in the middle of the highstreet. Also the Peacocks and Store21. There’s many niche and expensive shops as well as charity ones that always have impressive […]

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5=Transformation-Destiny-Completion. The looks that got us to this day: 2014 2013 2012 2011

The Doomsday Book Connie Willis

The Doomsday Book by American author Connie Willis, science fiction writer of no small repute, originally published in 1992. The title is a reference to the famous Domesday Book and is about a journey that starts off as historical research but ends up a mission of mercy helping the helpless die with dignity.

This is a tough book to review, not least because critically acclaimed and multi-award nominated/winning media tend to have a marmite like reception from the general audience but also because it’s a genre crossover (sci-fi and historical fiction), covers character’s feelings in detail, changes format and is long (600+ pages). That’s a formula for brilliant or boring for many.

In addition it became of personal interest to me; in the past couple of years almost every book I’ve read has had some personal correlation to my life or immediate future. That could be said generically for alot of media a person partakes in since we go through similar feelings if not experiences. However these last two years I’ve found specific details to whole conversations in books mirroring my circumstances e.g. I’d been eyeing a book in the library for a while but was wary of the title, finally decided to read it and on the very first page it said the characters lived in Hampshire and it was January. A few days later, in January, we moved to Hampshire and other details including names, their relationships and number of years were too close to home so I stopped reading it. Sounds farfetched but the few books that haven’t corresponded are far outnumbered by those that have.

The Doomsday Book is a book I wouldn’t usually pick up due to the cover and blurb/nature of the story and actually skipped over a few times until I finally thought ‘oh ok’ and then I left it for a while to read others instead. On the day I finally started reading it I found the main character began her journey, a journey she’d been prepping two years for, on the same day of the year. That day has significance for me and the people in her life/lives are very familiar so I guess that makes it even more impressive. Therefore I’m going to structure this review differently to a normal one.

But first…


Kivrin is a Medieval History student at the University of Oxford where the History department has been carrying out successful time-travel ‘drops’ into the past with human agents. However they haven’t been to the Middle Ages and Kivrin is set to be the first, but unlike the other drops this one hasn’t had the usual tests and prelims yet she and her supervising tutor Gilchrist are determined to go ahead. The audience is not privy to her reasons but it seems Gilchrist is obsessed with getting the glory for being the acting Head of his department when it happens – potential promotion practically shows in his eyes and he must get her to go before the real Head turns up, who btw has gone on leave and can’t be found. The other tutors, lab technician and doctor aren’t so sure but half encourage the plan so she can ‘feel the danger and end up ok, to have a great experience’ like they did. What they fail to say is that just because things didn’t go wrong for them doesn’t mean they can’t go wrong and one is a bit too interested in her archaeological dig nearby where Kivrin is supposed to land and what info the student can provide.

The intended time destination is 1320 but due to numerous factors she ends up in 1348, the plague is rife and quickly spreading north. As if highway men, vagabonds, rapists, witch hunts and a time period that didn’t value female’s to even put their names on graves wasn’t enough. Kivrin had meticulously learned many skills and was kitted with a language translator but she finds that theory is not the same as practice. Plus being found alone, disorientated in addition to ‘small’ details like the weave of her dress being too fine and her visage being too clean can all lead to suspicion. On top of all that she is ill and didn’t know it when she left and she’s not the only one – the time she left behind is in early stages of an Influenza pandemic and due to the rushing of her inoculations she’s immune to two of the three types of Black Death as well as other illnesses of the time but not to this one from her own time.

To make matters worse she didn’t land in the designated area so has to find it via landmarks and when she’s found by a local person she’s barely conscious. She’s taken to the manor house of a local village and thankfully nursed not resented/begrudged. When she comes to she realizes the translator isn’t working as expected but gradually gets used to things and becomes the temporary nanny of the manor family’s children. She starts writing a diary and lives in hope of her colleagues being able to rescue her.

Back in modern Oxford the area is under official lockdown, communications are limited, resources are strained and people are dying left, right and centre. One of the tutors, Mr Dunworthy, is worried about Kivrin especially as the lab technician is hospitalized as a severe case whilst trying to convey a message that something has been awry with the drop but everyone else thinks Dunworthy in imagining it – the interface stats don’t seem to show a problem and they’ll pick up Kivrin in due course. But the staff come-down with Influenza and Gilchrist bars Dunworthy from the lab, heightens security and even shuts down the power – with people ill or off on holiday it gets harder and less possible to even think about collecting Kivrin.

Both sides get increasingly desperate; in Medieval time the villagers were already under feudal rule, the main family separated, the eldest child a mere girl due for arranged marriage to a much older man all too ready to fondle her but she’s willing to sacrifice herself even whilst terrified to ‘the devil she knows’ for the sake of those she’s responsible for than to become property of the king and sold off in negotiations if her older relatives die. The youngest child is lonely and kills her puppy ‘through kindness’, she’s also scared and hence clingy and loud. The mother is devoted to her husband and son who are far away hoping they’ll arrive any day but her heart belongs to one of the guardsmen and the feeling is mutual but can’t ever be reciprocated. The family maid is negligent and complacent but who can blame her with the treatment she gets. The mother-in-law runs the show and is firmly believes in ‘society’s uppers and betters’ putting the villagers to use as servants. That includes the humble monk Roche who believes Kivrin is an incarnation of Saint Catherine there to help them in these terrible times.


1&2) It takes characters too long to contact each other, running around, relaying messages, trying to get updates and missing each other. That’s annoying. Also it’s not sci-fi.

My Answer: Many people are impatient with the problems of others or those outside their circle. The book is set in the future but was written in our past, over 2 decades ago when mobile phones and email weren’t common and it seems a lot of people can’t remember that it can be difficult to contact others when phone lines go down. Today our normalized lives can seem and are sci-fi to those not so far back, that doesn’t mean we don’t have far more advanced tech in use or in the making but I think by not taking giant leaps the author allowed the story to be more relatable, though ironically more frustrating for many. If she’d focused more on the sci-fi/tech and an uber modern setting this book could easily be swept under the rug as ‘typical sci-fi’ by people not interested in the genre and who’d otherwise miss out.

The characters behaved like people, that may seem boring, repetitive and slow to read but that’s where I felt the strength of this book was – it’s humanity. The sci-fi and historical setting were the vehicles but the characters were realistic instead of niche or all different from each other and so it can take patience to read this if wanting escapism, glamour or stereotypical ‘action/sci-fi/fantasy’. It’s also worth noting that time travel is a part of sci-fi that doesn’t by default engender a scientific setting; it doesn’t have to be ‘realistic’ and when realism is attempted its hotly debated. Here it’s a means to an end, no explanations = which I personally found sad but perhaps beneficial to others uninterested in those details.

The book was recognized by the sci-fi genre despite being light on the science and it fleshed out data/stats – instead of being part of the massive death toll, approx 1/3 of those affected and upto 1/2 in crowded areas throughout Eurasia, the characters were almost real. We’re made to care and cry about them instead of just seeing them as one of many of the soon-to-be dead. From the likeable, giving and helpful characters to those repulsive, the plague is indiscriminate and it’s through the character’s behaviour that makes the ‘darkness’ a punishment or relief although being in the midst of it can make it difficult to see the latter and there’s a definite crisis of faith from religious to the feeling of abandonment and desolation. But where other places saw bodies dragged via noose and heaped in piles the village where Kivrin is has the benefit of her knowledge and the care that brings – from her treatment of symptoms to Roche’s quiet assistance to the gravedigger’s seeming negativity as he relentlessly digs graves in the belief that everyone will need one. Only after he dies having sat in his grave and pulling soil over himself they realize he was ill, that the ground is almost impenetrable due to its frozen state and that he made it easier for them. They’re all so tired and so vividly portrayed. It’s heart wrenching and with her last vestiges of strength she tries to ring the town bells in accordance to their tradition; 9 rings for a man, 3 for a woman and 1 for a child (remember the phrase ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’ – that’s apparently because the men bathed first, then the women, then the children so the water was dirty by that time and perhaps opaque.)

The author even managed to weave in some symbolism using ritual dates and bells sounding different meanings throughout the book.

3) The portrayal of Oxford University isn’t correct.

A: The author did five years of research but unless you’ve studied/worked or known others who’ve been there for an extended period of time you’re unlikely to know any place enough in the minds of those who have. I think the setting of the book in both past and future were atmospheric and immersive enough, moreso the portrayal of the Middle Ages and with Kivrin being a ‘person in a strange world’ but I’d say that makes more interesting reading for someone from the ‘future’ like myself and used to city life. In a modern setting I can imagine how one quarantined zone can generally become like another. The details of the surroundings don’t come into the plot-telling so much since the crises and difficulty in communicating take over. I’m all for accuracy but it’s difficult enough in non-fiction so in fiction I’d think there should be abit of leeway, as long as it resembles the place enough to recognize it and the names are either true or not too offensively changed, though maybe I’d feel differently if she’d based it on a place I’d lived in but I hope not since I think the themes of this book are more important. That said I’m reviewing this as a standalone book and not as what it later became – the first in the ‘Oxford Time Travel series’ where her locale knowledge would come further under the spotlight.

I think the main point was that people haven’t fundamentally changed; they are the same wherever/whenever they are, the behaviours and personalities are the same even if technology, medicine or other life conditions change.

4) It’s boring.

A: If you want blood and guts this book has it in spades but in no way does it sensationalize. It’s true we’re used to seeing mass suffering in news and entertainment and security divisions use it for effective training and desensitization (the latter to last at least until the ‘situation is over’). Extended exposure to anything makes it generic/mundane and easier to detach/disassociate so it’s takes grander and more awe-inspiring effects/events to feel involved and that goes for both being a voyeur and a participant but the latter may have little/no mobility and left wondering if anyone cares or will help, even resigned to their ‘fate’ and this book conveys that aptly. It’s reflective but not greatly so since all the characters are on borrowed time. Kivrin and Roche have to give a lot of compassion and take a hands-on approach to helping without giving her identity away.

The point is history isn’t dead as long we’re alive or there is memory, our experiences are real even if not understood, I’d hate to be in a ‘more exciting’ situation.

It’s probably worth noting that everyone in the book attends church and appear to be regular churchgoers. In the modern setting it would be plausible for any of them to be religious and an attendee though very strange for them all to be from many a reader’s point of view. That’s not necessarily a criticism, more a strange ‘coincidence’.


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