The Crimson Ribbon

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The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements, book reviewThe opening chapter of Katherine Clements’ debut novel, The Crimson Ribbon, packs a powerful punch. Opening in the Fenland town of Ely on May Day 1646, we meet two women desperately battling to help a third in childbirth. The child is born severely malformed, and the mother’s instinctive reaction is to accuse the two midwives – Annie Flowers and her teenage daughter Ruth – of witchcraft and devilry. She runs to get her husband from the inn; Annie and Ruth follow to try and stem the accusations. Another woman overhears what has happened and takes her opportunity to support the claim of witchcraft against Annie, as Annie’s remedies and charms failed to revive her seriously ill husband the year before. An angry mob is soon formed, fuelled by the drinking the holiday has encouraged. Annie is first ducked and then hung by them, and as they turn against a sobbing Ruth, she runs for the only place she knows is safe: the household where she has grown up and now serves as kitchen maid. The household of one Oliver Cromwell.

This opening, for me, was realistic, powerful and emotionally engaging. You could feel the fear seeping off the page and felt an immediate connection to Ruth. It was clear that Clements knew her history, and I looked forward to reading the rest of the story. Unfortunately, this opening was the highest point of the novel and it couldn’t keep up this sort of standard for much longer.

With Cromwell not around the defend the household from the baying mob gathering outside, Ruth is sent away to London with just a letter of introduction to a friendly household there and a few coins to see her on her way. Travelling across the country during the civil war was not an easy thing to do, but Ruth manages to strike up an alliance with a soldier called Joseph who is also travelling to the city. Upon arrival, Ruth finds herself welcomed into the Poole household while Joseph goes off to take up a printing apprenticeship. Within the Poole residence, Ruth finds friendship with Elizabeth, the daughter of the house who writes scandalous pamphlets arguing for the equality of women with men and attends religious meetings to debate scripture and advance her learning. It is inevitably only a matter of time before trouble catches up with Ruth here.

The potential of The Crimson Ribbon is clear to see. Taking the fascinating real-life character of Elizabeth Poole – known as a pamphleteer and prophetess for her religious insights and visions – and throwing in a creditable link to Cromwell to highlight the political backdrop of the day should have presented a heady mix of reality and fiction to exploit. The three years covered by this book were turbulent to say the least, and together with the fear and paranoia generated by witch hunts, you have an electric environment in which a ripping yarn should be easily possible.

And yet. Instead of concentrating on the history and letting us see more of this electrifying world, we get a story that is disappointingly bogged down in romance and tortured longings between characters. The sections of the book that take us through historical settings – the markets, the jails, the dinner table discussions – are wonderful, but the lingering chapters about love are hard to believe and get wearisome very quickly.

The story also relies too much on the power of coincidence. Take the meeting of Ruth and Joseph, for instance. He comes to her aid, and upon learning her destination, offers her a place on the cart he has arranged passage on; a cart that has taken him “days” to find as so few travel the roads during the war. So, Ruth only speaks to two men on her first night away from home, one who harasses her and one who happens to have rare access to safe transport coincidentally in the same direction of travel as her. What are the odds? London was also a lot smaller then than now, but the odds of people meeting up by happenstance in it – as happens repeatedly during the book – must surely be too great to have happened this often. Such dei ex machina are perhaps the hallmark of someone who doesn’t yet have the confidence in their plotting for a full novel; such a book frankly deserves better.

I have mixed feeling about The Crimson Ribbon. It could and should have been better, so I don’t feel able to recommend it, but if you ever want to know how to write about fear and mob behaviour you could do an awful lot worse that read the opening to this book.

The Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements
Published by Headline, March 2014
With thanks to the publisher for providing the review copy.

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Crimson Ribbon, The
by Katherine Clements

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