I first read about Katie Hickman's novel The Aviary Gate last year over at Cornflower Books, and put it on my list. When I decided to go through my list and finally read a bunch of the books, this was one of the ones I chose. Lately anything about the southern and eastern edges of the Mediterranean has been catching my interest, so this book is well timed. It also fits into a plot device I've grown to like very much, of having a modern scholar discovering some piece of history.
In Constantinople in 1599, the English embassy is courting the Sultan, hoping for trading rights. England has sent a gift to the Sultan, but on the journey to Constantinople it is all but destroyed. It is a musical instrument, a clock, a clever piece of machinery, and it is being reassembled outside the Aviary Gate. One day, two of the Englishmen working on the gift are given the improbable chance to look into the Sultan's harem, and see his women playing in a garden. Shockingly, one of the women is familiar. Her name is Celia Lamprey, and for two years her fiancé, Paul Pindar, the ambassador's secretary, has thought her dead. As far as he knows, she died in a shipwreck. With the two so close to each other yet impossibly separated, they must find a way to get a message to each other.
In Oxford in the present day, grad student Elizabeth finds a manuscript inside a book from the Bodleian library's Pindar Collection. The manuscript tells the beginning of Celia's story, but it is incomplete. Elizabeth feels an illusory connection to Celia, and wanting to know more, and wanting to leave an unhappy relationship behind, she goes to Istanbul to find answers.
This book is wonderfully colourful and sensual, rife with fabulous details of life in the Sultan's harem--the silence, the whispers and gossip, the beauty and staleness of the palace buildings. So much of the story is about a power struggle between the Sultan's mother, who is second in power only to the Sultan, and the Sultan's favourite concubine, and the book is thoroughly suspenseful, letting its characters discover the exact nature of this struggle piece by piece. It's about this as much as it is about Celia and Paul, but everything is woven together seamlessly. Celia must discover and deal with truths about the harem as much as she must deal with the sudden hope of freedom. Elizabeth's modern story is equally a story of discovery, and the resolution of the tale which ties both sections together is very cleverly shared by the two sections.
It's rare I find a book which so powerfully affects my visual creativity. There's so much wonderful colour here, jewels and fabrics and Turkish tile. Something will come of it, I'm sure. I want to paint fabric with all this colour, and make something out of it. It's been a while since I read such a visual book, and it was a lovely experience.
I like historical novels like this one, and like The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, that say something about history. As these books do, I think it's best done by showing someone discovering history, and being forced to look at it through a collection of things that isn't always in proportion to what was important. This makes me realize how fascinating I find history--it provides such a wonderful pre-made storytelling canvas, with so many empty spaces to fit stories into.