Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Flight of the Sparrow by Fay Sampson

I had to write this on my blog, as I realised it was likely to be rather long for Carla's comments. These are very much my thoughts about the book, rather than a review.

I read this book after many years of hardly reading fiction at all. I just about kept up with the Arthurian fiction, and that was about it. But in 1999, I joined the Historical Novel Society, saw a review of Flight and thought it was worth reading. After all, it was one of the few reviewed that was set near my era of interest.

I've always liked first person. It doesn't matter to me that it is only one view. It's quite a challenge to the author, and they have to be particularly adept to make the story successful. For me, Sampson triumphs on all fronts. The reader is shown the inner workings of an Anglo-Saxon king. I find him entirely congruent - his outward behaviour is different from his inner voice. He is flawed and has weaknesses, yet to be king he must not show it. He must impress, be arrogant, find the right woman to marry, choose the religion that will make him win, and keep conquering territories. How many men give the outward impression they are tough, when underneath they are really insecure? Certainly Edwin of Deira is one of these.

Being an Anglo-Saxon king (or an aspriring king) was one of the most hazardous jobs of that era, and that came across very well. I felt that Sampson gave an insightful view of what it may have been like to be an Anglo-Saxon warrior of that period. I don't particularly like him; he's a man of his time, and all that implies. Yet I was sufficiently drawn in by the end to be afraid for him and his death in battle. It is alwalys a gamble to make a character unlikeable, but this author somehow makes it work. Sampson is very good at giving her characters an air of being different to us, of being part of their own time. I am not interested in matters religious, yet this made me interested to see how he handled it.

Flight taught me a huge amount about what I felt was important about an historical novel. When it comes down to it, the story tops the history. Therefore, whatever historical path the author has chosen (and all historical authors chose a path, all the more so with early eras) I will not pick at it unless it is grossly incorrect. Or when the story is also questionable - when the people don't behave congruently, characters are too black and white, or they speak in creaky, unrealistic tones, etc. I didn't even notice the change from past tense to present, I was just carried along.

Yes, I agree with Carla about the political aspects of the 7th century. I don't think concept of conquest of the British is so cut and dried as portrayed in Flight. Though I wonder if it's Edwin's unreliable first person narrative here? He's been brought up amongst the western British, who were likely to have more of a concept of encroaching 'Anglo-Saxon' Kingdoms. However, the same ideas are also given in Sampson's recent book, The Land of Angels; the Anglo-Saxons there also say they should be blonde, blue-eyed (ouch!), etc. This view is out-dated. It's more of a case of who are the Anglo-Saxons? Is it culture or ethnicity, or a mixture of both? Sampson is not writing a reference book. But she has written a book which might inspire someone to look closer at the era, and in the end, that is commendable.

For me, the 7th century was a bit late. My interests centre on the 5th-6th centuries, so I came to the story with no expectations, and no particular vision on how Edwin might be. But now I am very intrigued indeed. I was ready to be swept away, and it was the right book, read at the right time. I almost don't want to read it again now, in case I start picking at any perceived flaws :-)

As regards to my own period of interest, it is dominated by the King Arthur factor (sighs with total boredom at the thought). I think I have now finally past the 'pain barrier' where these are concerned. And boy was there a lot of pain, as authors seemed to cheerfully stomp on the historical side of things. There are so many fictional Arthurs, and I have read a fair few, so I now have a good sense of what I think is important; as a reader I want to be immersed in the quality of the writing. I want to absolutely trust the author to take me on a journey, and I don't want to see the inner workings of the author as that kills suspension of disbelief. If the author has created a congruent world (i.e it fully functions within the bounds created), they can have as many King Arthurs as they like, but the writing must be extremely competent. It must transcend any doubts I have about how they approached the history. Seventh century-set Flight did just that for me.

To me Sampson's Edwin is driven, vigorous, courageous and ruthless. He isn't superman or a flawless hero, and that's why it works. He is human. Not some faceless king, who does the right (or indeed the wrong) thing without thinking. He seemed to leap off the page, a living, breathing person in his own right. The Flight of the Sparrow is a very good book.

9am: Blogger currently won't let me upload a cover shot of the book. Will add it later

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At 1:14 pm GMT, Blogger Martyn said...

That was an enjoyable post. Don't know much about Edwin of Deira although I know the name and the local connections. I find the whole post-Roman, pre-Norman conquest period really fascinating. Regarding the matter of conquest or otherwise by Anglo-Saxon types, I was reading about Caedmon of Whitby recently. I should have realised that his name was a British/Germanic compound suggesting a mixed heritage. Genetically the English (along with the rest of the British & Irish) do not really match the profile of your average North Europeans, so something interesting was going on. I would love to go back in a time machine to observe (from a safe distance) exactly what was happening.
I know the lack of many Celtic loan words in English is often cited as evidence of "ethnic cleansing", but the dialects of South Wales and Cornwall only possess one or two more words of Brythonic origin than their immediate neighbouring English dialects. It seems that the two languages just do not meld that easily like say old English and Old Norse.

At 1:45 pm GMT, Blogger Alex Bordessa said...

It's all very tangled. People can't agree on how many AS there actually were in the country in the early period. It may not be that many, and they seemed to have inter-married with the locals pretty quick, and seem to have had an outsize influence. One idea is that identifying with the Germanic element might have been seen as a good move. They seemed to be the ones 'on the up' elsewhere (loads in the Roman army, and they seemed to have considered themselves Rome's heirs too), so allying with their culture might have been a safe option. But there isn't a definitive answer. It's a fascinating period.

At 2:42 pm GMT, Blogger Carla said...

Stephen Oppenheimer has an interesting theory that the language of lowland England might have been a relative of English long before the 'Anglo-Saxon' period. Which would be consistent with the idea that eastern lowland Britain tends to look across the North Sea for cultural ties, while the western seaboard tends to look down the Atlantic coasts - if I remember rightly, Barry Cunliffe proposed a similar east-west split from Iron Age archaeology. I've got a copy of Oppenheimer's book on order and am looking forward to reading it (when I have time.....)
Martyn - he's the geneticist who wrote the article in Prospect magazine that you posted the link to here when we were talking about Tristan and Isolde.

At 7:59 pm GMT, Blogger Carla said...

" his outward behaviour is different from his inner voice"
I think that's the nub of the problem I had with the novel, that I had trouble understanding that dichotomy from the first person narrative. I felt I understood the inner voice but couldn't see the outer behaviour clearly. CS Forester's Hornblower has a not dissimilar split between self-doubt and ability, but for me the third-person narrative in the Hornblower novels gives just that bit extra distance so that I get both sides in balance. But this is purely personal.
I don't think you need worry about re-reading it and finding perceived 'flaws' - if it worked for you first time round it will likely work just as well on a re-reading. I don't really think there is a 'right' or 'wrong' way to tell a story, and things that one reader sees as flaws another reader may see as great strengths. Thanks for posting your opinion!

At 8:39 pm GMT, Blogger Alex Bordessa said...

I think I will read it more critically than I did first time round. Since 1999 I have become more analytical on what is working (or not) and why. So to read it now would be different.

It is very personal as to whether 1st person or 3rd person is liked. Mostly people seem to prefer 3rd. As I have said before - I'm a paid-up member of the awkward squad.

At 12:01 am GMT, Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Carla, that's a good example. Hornblower is indeed angsting a lot but it never bothered me because when he needs to act, he does, and competently so, and despite his reserved manners, he's popular with his men because he keeps the angsting to himself and comes across a reliable and someone who cares about others. His major flaw, imho, is that he doesn't like music. *grin*

Now, if Edwin was portrayed like that, I might read the book, but it seems the balance is lacking. First person narrators are usually more introspective but there must be a way to balance this - Bernard Cornwell does a good job with Derfel, the narrator of the Arthur books (*hides from Alex* lol) - he thinks and observes but he's not prone to prolongued navel gazing. :)

At 9:07 am GMT, Blogger Alex Bordessa said...

In my opinion it *is* balanced enough - so draw your own conclusions Gabriele. Flight is actually quite a short book (254 pages), as the Hale books tend to be. There are not great long navel-gazing passages, otherwise I might have said it was boring! I like action-stuff too. Perhaps my sometimes introspective blogs have given the impression I like angsty stuff, so have undermined my opinion on this book?

I would say that Cornwell's stuff is more superficial, and less sightful ;-) I can read him and remain pretty detached. Not so with Flight, which I would say was worth trying as you might actually like it, and have an interesting time. Anyway, Flight, is now out of print, so there's no real burden to read it. Cornwell you can pick up anywhere, but Flight is a rare gem.

Hornblower, only from what I've seen from tv, is too good to be true and unrealistic. In my experience, and it's borne out by many of the warring countries in the world, is that the bad or tough guys somehow get lots of people to follow them. Virtue is rarely rewarded; in reality Hornblower's men would have given him a hard time and walked all over him, if he's as soft and caring as protrayed in the series. The tv Hornblower was also horribly lacking in pace (i.e. I was bored). Cornwell fortunately has a harder edge.

At 4:10 pm GMT, Blogger Gabriele C. said...

I haven't seen the TV series (though I want to, because of Ioan Gruffud, he looks totally droolworthy on the still pics I've seen) so I don't know how Hornblower comes across there, but in the books he isn't soft.

Ok, I'll keep an eye out for Flight but I suppose the only way to get it will be a used bookstore in York. :)

At 5:56 pm GMT, Blogger Alex Bordessa said...

Er ... I'm not about to give my copy away, so there's unikely to be one in in a 2nd bookshop in York. Not sure what the print run's likely to be, but it'll be low, and the Hale imprint mainly supplies libraries.

Abebooks has one from the UK (Derby) for £20, which is a good price. Or there's one from the US at £28. Original price £16.99, so if I keep mine a while it could contribute a little to my pension ;-)

At 6:14 pm GMT, Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I didn't think you would give yours away, but that used bookstores in the UK would be the only place to find a copy at all.

And 30€ for a book I'm not even sure I'll like is a bit much. :)

At 1:25 am GMT, Blogger Anne said...

Thanks for your thoughts on Flight, Alex, I've got it on my list to read.

Take care, Anne.~

At 2:54 pm GMT, Blogger Carla said...

TV-Hornblower doesn't do book-Honblower justice, in my view - what it gains on the eye candy it loses on the characterisation. I watched two of them and happily went back to the books.

At 6:21 pm GMT, Blogger Gabriele C. said...

Carla, have you ever seen the old movie with Gregory Peck? It only covers Captain Hornblower, Ship of the Line and Flying Colours in 2 hours, but it's eye candy and closer to the book. I started reading them after I saw that one.

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