Stirring times, Edmund Bohan

Collision
Joanna Orwin
HarperCollins, $36.99,
ISBN 9781869507787

Banquo’s Son
T K Roxborogh
Penguin Books, $37.00,
ISBN 9780143202493

The historical novel worldwide has possibly never enjoyed such a golden age as at present, with such remarkably diverse writers of quality as Boris Akunin, Hilary Mantel, Bernard Cornwell, Jean C Rufin, Frank Tallis, Iain Pears and a veritable host of others expanding the range of this most versatile of genres and catering for almost every literary taste.

The simultaneous appearance here of these  sharply contrasted novels underlines (in case anyone has somehow failed to notice) the welcome fact that the genre flourishes in New Zealand too, in all its variety. My genuine regret, however, is that neither Collision nor Banquo’s Son, in spite of the differing virtues each does possess, is particularly satisfactory.

Both Joanna Orwin and T K Roxborogh have proven pedigrees as writers of children’s and young adult fiction. The award-winning Orwin has also achieved distinction in writing about New Zealand flora and fauna, Maori lore and history; T K Roxborogh – hitherto familiar as Tania Roxborogh – has also published handbooks on teaching drama and, especially, Shakespeare. For both, these are their first ventures into writing fiction for the adult market.

Collision – subtitled “When cultures clash, misunderstanding can be fatal” – traces in scrupulously researched detail Marion du Fresne’s disastrous two-month visit to the Bay of Islands in 1772 following a mid-ocean collision between his ships Mascarin and Marquis de Castries. The story, seen through the eyes of teenage ensign André Tallec and the equally young Te Kape – the only entirely fictional characters – has the classic quality of Greek tragedy. The mutual incomprehension of Maori and French generates a succession of cultural misunderstandings that inexorably lead to du Fresne’s murder and the subsequent carnage, whose memories so scarred relations between Europeans and the northern tribes for two generations or more.

It is a well-documented story, of course, but that essential familiarity cannot really be blamed for the book’s curious lack of tension. In spite of the wealth of historical fact and Orwin’s admirable descriptive powers, this tragic story simply fails to take flight. The French, especially, remain to a man strangely wooden and dull, and their conversation stilted and unconvincing. The interwoven Maori version (an excellent idea), related by the fictional Te Kape many years later and largely based on Maori memories transcribed during the mid 19th century by the pioneer missionary ethnographer John White, is much more vivid.

There is sadly too much earnestly and painstakingly imparted historical detail, and too little imaginative or fictional colour to make this a satisfying novel.

One certainly cannot accuse Roxborogh of such miscalculations. Rather the reverse, for her Banquo’s Son – subtitled “How do you choose between love and honour?” – is based entirely on the events and characters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and has nothing to do with real history, as the author happily admits. She urges us in her author’s note to read it not as:

an accurate historical account of events at the time. I have tried as much as possible to draw upon the vocabulary that was in use during the Elizabethan era rather than from 11th century Scotland, as I imagined myself sitting at Shakespeare’s desk penning this sequel.

 

It is thus simply fantasy, yet set specifically in 1053-4; but, though inventing fantasy “history” is no literary crime, there are surely limits when one is so particular with dates.

To have Donalbain’s son, Duncan, the reluctant king, pondering on the prospect of being too young to rule and invoking for inspiration memories of Genghis Khan as well as Alexander the Great is going too far. Genghis Khan (c1162-1227) was not to be born for more than a century. An observant or solicitous editor really should have stepped in here.

The cast is headed by several characters from the play but who have at best only the faintest and most shadowy historical existences: Fleance, grown to young manhood, familiarly called by the twee diminutive “Flea” and destined to become king; the ghost of his father Banquo, who urges him on; Malcolm, king when the story begins but fated to die fairly soon; his unattractive brother Donalbain; the witches (splendidly characterised); and bluff warriors Macduff and Lennox.

They are joined in this highly coloured and sometimes even breathless romantic saga of love, duty, divided loyalties, vaulting ambition and fateful supernatural manifestations by Fleance’s youthful beloved, the impulsive, beautiful and high-spirited Rosie; Donalbain’s unconvincingly saintly but ill-starred son Duncan; and his calmly lovely and sensible sister Rachel – as torn as is Fleance by obligations of duty and sacrifice for the greater good of the realm etc etc.

At least Roxborogh writes with verve, and the story does gallop along at a good pace, though she does not really succeed in advancing beyond the style and mood of her young adult novels. The end leads on naturally to a sequel, Bloodlines, and that is already in train. We get the Prologue. The third part of this intended trilogy, however, might pose problems.

I wish I enjoyed this kind of fantasy historical novel but I have to be honest and admit that I don’t. Real historical events and characters seem always far more interesting and vital because they do provide limitless opportunities and settings for fiction. So it is useful, I think, to remind ourselves of the harsh but fascinating historical truth about Macbeth and the 11th century House of Dunkeld’s dynastic feuds.

The great “Scottish Play” and its sources were essentially propaganda to bolster the Stuart kings’ claims to legitimacy. Shakespeare also indulged James I’s almost obsessive fascination for the supernatural. King Duncan the Sick or Diseased (1034-40) was neither old nor saintly, but an ineffectual young man and weak ruler whom few mourned. His cousin, Macbeth the Red-haired, king for 17 years, was admired by his contemporaries for generosity, strength and wisdom in blending his combustible mix of Gaelic and Viking, Christian and pagan fiefdoms, and especially his turbulent kinsmen, into a more or less unified realm.

Like his wife, Gruoch, and Duncan, he was directly descended from Kenneth MacAlpin, first king of Scots. After his defeat and death at the hands of Malcolm Canmore and Siward of Northumbria in the Battle of Lumphanan in 1057, Macbeth was succeeded by his stepson Lulach the Foolish (or Simple), who reigned for six months before he too was slain by Malcolm, who then ruled until 1093 when he was killed by his brother Donald III (Ban, the Fair). He, inevitably, waged war against his nephews: Duncan II (king briefly in 1094 before Donald killed him); Edgar the Valiant (1097-1107), who with surprising generosity banished Donald to a monastery; Alexander I (1107-24); and David I, the Holy (1124-1153).

These were stirring times, and a splendidly rich mine for historical novelists of every possible type. Why bother with Fleance and Rosie?

The finest fictional version of the Macbeth saga remains King Hereafter by the late Dorothy Dunnett, not merely the most thorough and erudite of historical researchers, but a novelist of the first rank. Banquo’s Son is something quite different; not that Roxborogh needs to worry about the quibbles of pedantic reviewers. Backed by her dynamic Writers’ House New York agency, the palpitating ardour of her loyal teenage readership and their burgeoning fan websites, commercial success is probably assured.

 

Christchurch historian and biographer Edmund Bohan is the author of eight historical novels.

 

Banquo’s Son was shortlisted for this year’s New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

 

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