|Apr/May 2017 Reviews & Interviews|
The House at Bishopsgate
Bloomsbury. 2017. 430 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 8221 4.
"A'az ma yutlab"—My heart's desire—is the tiny, almost invisible inscription carved into a diamond the size of a baby's fist. This is the Sultan's Blue diamond, a magnificent gem that, according to legend, must never be sold or misfortune will happen. And this is the diamond which weaves all the many threads in this book together.
How Sir Paul Pindar, a wealthy and well-travelled merchant of the Honourable Levant Company, comes to have it in his possession is a curious and compelling story. And in 1643 his unexpected appearance with it at Whitehall Palace and his demand to see the King himself causes quite a stir.
Yet it is the events which lead up to this moment which are the substance of this book. And especially it is the extraordinary lives of Paul's wife Celia and her close companion Annetta; the search for Paul's childhood friend John Carew; and the mystery surrounding the widow Lady Francis Sydenham which fill the book.
In 1611, Paul and Celia returned to England after having lived in Aleppo for an extended period of time. Both have been away from England for many years and Celia, especially, is so attuned to Mohammedan culture that the customs and formalities of English society are quite foreign to her. The details of her earlier life are almost unbelievably strange and exotic but the skill with which Katie Hickman reveals them as the story progresses makes them a fascinating and acceptable background to Celia's present troubles in Paul's grand, richly furnished London house at Bishopsgate.
Strange and exotic, too, is the life of Annetta, the tiny, irascible, Italian ex-nun whose caustic voice often fills Celia's imagination long before she arrives to join the family in London. And the life of Paul's childhood companion, the elusive miscreant, John Carew, is no less adventurous.
On the voyage to Venice, immediately before Celia's planned marriage to Paul, she and Annetta had been captured by corsairs and sold into slavery in the Great Turk's House of Felicity in Constantinople. Annetta, in particular, had become the favored hand-maiden and confidant of the Valide—the Ottoman Queen—and the great diamond had come into her possession on the Queen's death. It is she, on her release from service, together with her long-ago love, John Carew, who engineer Celia's escape from the Ottoman court.
Celia's subsequent abuse by pirates, a miscarriage and her unexpected re-union with Paul, all form part of the back-story, but the difficulties of her present life in Paul's Bishopsgate house have more to do with Lady Frances Sydenham, who as a recent widow has prevailed on Paul's generosity to accompany him and Celia from Aleppo to England, and who has become a temporary part of the family. Her initial capable assistance in helping Celia to handle the household and in introducing her to women of high social rank becomes increasingly manipulative and controlling. Celia, into whose confidence she has worked her way, eventually begins to question her motives and the tiny, sharp, questioning voice of Annetta, even before she arrives to join the family at Bishopsgate, often fills Celia's head and fuels her doubts. Paul, however, is busy with his dealings in the City, and he dismisses Celia's doubts. His relationship with Celia is loving but distant and he refuses, for some unstated reason, to sleep with her. Frances Sydenham, meanwhile, sets out to charm him.
Paul's own search for his long-lost friend John Carew, his strained relationship with his jealous, socially ambitious brother Ralph, and his increasingly onerous duties in the City which prevent him from visiting his aged father in their country manor-house in Berkshire, all add to the complexities of the plot.
Katie Hickman is a fine story-teller. She writes well, creates interesting characters and an absorbing story, and she knows how to make what could have been an unbelievably exotic and romantic scenario fresh and acceptable. The House at Bishopsgate combines mystery, history, excitement, exotic settings, royalty, jealousy and family dramas in a very readable and fascinating story. That it is, apparently, the third in a series of novels concerning the same characters is never a hindrance to its enjoyment as a stand-alone tale.