Review Blog

Jun 09 2010

With a sword in my hand by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem and Pat van Beirs

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Translated by John Nieuwenhuizen. Allen and Unwin, 2010. ISBN 9781741758658.
Middle school. Historical. Highly recommended. Marguerite pours out her hatred for her father, the man who sent away her mother, who was brought to near madness and despair after a series of shocking births, stillborn children and the early death of her only son, leading her to drink poison. The presence of his only living child, Marguerite, daily mocks his absolute despair for a son, a boy to inherit his castle, a boy to carry his name, the next Count of Flanders. But when he hisses at her, throwing a chair at her while leaving the room, she goes to the one place where all women go who hate the men in their lives, the little chapel on the marshlands, containing the disheveled statue of Mary, known locally as 'Our Lady of Hate'. It is fourteenth century Flanders, and the count is in constant battle with his daughter, Marguerite.
What an amazing tale. Marguerite is a marvellous character, full of fire and life, denying her father's dismissal of her, undermining his authority by riding her horse like a man, learning to fence and finding a kissing partner. He often taunts that he will marry her off, and when he announces that he has chosen as his son in law, the son of the English king, Edmond, Marguerite is shocked to her very core. Here is the son of the king who murdered her grandfather, who is part of the English monarchy fighting France through the Hundred Years' War, but supplying Flanders with the fine English wool which keeps the people of Bruges spinning their fine cloth. The political tension is well realised, as the Count must weigh up the influence of the French court which includes his mother, and the English court which supports his country's economic base.
This exceptionally well written book, redolent of medieval times, moves along effortlessly, with no hint of it being a translation. Each sentence is a joy to read, each page memorable in its detail and flow, each chapter urging to be reread. Several pages at the end give an account of the real Marguerite, adding to the story read in the novel.
The religious basis, the everyday life in court as well as the kitchens, bath houses, training places and the castle, all add a finely detailed background to this novel which tells of one person's life, a life restricted by circumstance, birth and religion. Although the freedoms Marguerite enjoys are more consistent with a girl from the twentieth century, the story, background and the characters carry the novel along, completely immersing any reader.
Fran Knight

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