The Needle in the Blood
Snowbooks, Ltd., 2007, 576 pp.
ISBN 13: 978-1--905005-39-3
I first heard about The Needle in the Blood almost a year ago, from some writers for whom I have a great deal of respect. One of them kind of warned me that it's on the "literary" side, and rather "dense", and perhaps the latter is true. I didn't have any trouble following it, although I would say that this writer is correct that the style is "literary".
But it's basically a romantic historical novel. The central male character is Odo, Bishop of Bayeux(d. 1097), and the central female character is one Gytha, an Englishwoman. They meet because she is a skilled needlewoman, and she is more or less persuaded into embroidering the now world-famous Bayeux Tapestry. They end up having quite a relationship. Which, without offering a real "spoiler", just doesn't work.
The idea is interesting. Odo was quite an interesting character in his own right, being the half-brother of the first King William of England(otherwise known as "The Conqueror" or "the Bastard", depending on which side you view him from). Here, Ms. Bower presents Odo as a conflicted character, torn between his loyalty and need to serve his brother, and Gytha, who he really seems to want in his life.
Sarah Bower is a good writer, and this, apparently, is her first novel. She seems to have won a literary prize for it. But the novel itself is, well, odd.
In the first place it's written in the present tense. Okay, I've complained about this creeping trend elsewhere, so I won't go into that here. in this case, it didn't exactly bother me, since I'd been forerwarned. I will also say that Ms. Bower is a writer that may have the potential to carry this technique off. But I kept asking myself: is writing this way really necessary? Could she have told the story iin third person just as well? I think she could, no matter what she may have thought about creating an illusory "immediacy" for the reader.
And there were places that just made me grind my teeth. Ateliers for needlwork in the 11th century? Women carrying lockets with their children's hair in them? The description Ms. Bower gave of this locket, carried by Gytha, sounds more like a Native American "medicine pouch"(I've seen Native Americans wearing these), and carried for almost the same pourpose, than a locket. And there's the little matter of her making claims that Odo --- in his Earl of Kent "hat", goes around supervising road clearances and the like. Early in the book, there is a claim made about a curfew being imposed, and the reason for a large fire, which seems rather improbable to me.
Then there is also another problem that made me grind my teeth: the names some of the (English) characters are given, just wouldn't have existed in that period and place. Margaret? Tom? Judith? These sorts of names came in later in England, although people had names like this in continental Europe. Even her name Gytha might not be quite right: she mentioned that Gytha is really "Aelfgytha". I looked this up in the Pase List of Persons, which is a good source of "period" names. I've made use of it myself, for my own work. But "Gytha" sounds more Scandinavian. This might be possible, of course; by that time, some Scandinavian-derived names had crept into English usage, just as "continental" ones would later. She could have consulted a source like this, if she wanted more authenticity and accuracy.
So I'm left with a decided mixture of feelings about the book. Overall, I liked her brave attempt. As I said, she is a good writer, and she should keep on writing(she apparently intends to). And her style is easy enough to follow, though her use present tense seems to allow her to write a basically "omniscient" point of view which otherwise would be frowned on by most modern editors(one annoyance for me was, she seemed to suddenly shift points of view with no apparent break to "guide" the reader). On the other hand, I'm glad she tackled a subject which few writers have even tried to tackle, and in a way that holds the reader's interest. Despite my criticisms, I think it's a good piece of work, and I assume she'll grow as a writer. I look forward to seeing what she does next.