Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I, Coriander, by Sally Gardner

I finished reading this book last night and I'm still not sure what to make of it. I've done a bit of online research on Sally Gardner this morning and haven't come up with anything to help interpret this book. By interpretations, I am referring to her take on English history and the position of Oliver Cromwell in particular.

This book is set in England during the 1640's and 50's. The story is told by a young girl by the name of Coriander in which she relates the story of how her mother's fairy world became interwoven with the world which we know. Her mother was a fairy who chose to marry a mortal. Because of her lineage, Coriander has the ability to travel between the fairy realm and the world of mortal men. There's a wicked queen and a wicked stepmother. The story feels Cinderella-ish at times. In reaching the conclusion of the book I'd have to say it was summed up rather poorly. Even reviewers do not seem impressed with the way the story wraps up, but they are apt to excuse the writer's failings in this regard. I'm not. Really. I don't know yet. But I didn't feel like it explained things well. You are left to assume you've heard a fantastic tale but when you stop to think about it, you really didn't.

All fairies aside, Gardner spends 85% of the book bashing Oliver Cromwell and Puritans. One of the main villains is a "preacher" (Arise Fell)who goes about distributing the wrath of God at his own discretion. Tale after tale is related of how he rebuked ornate furniture, renamed people with more "Christian names" ( i.e, Coriander was addressed as Ann and is forced to refer to herself as such) and even murders an old woman which he charges with being a witch. He murders several people as the story goes on in the name of holiness. Gardner briefly mentions that the witch whom Fell drowns "didn't float, thereby proving her innocent." I found this slight reference annoying in that it didn't explain the superstitions of the day. Instead the book just felt like a complete attack on Puritans. She even goes so far as to say that the Puritans were banished to the new world. She makes it sound as if England had had enough and therefore piled them on boats themselves and banished them in the same way a criminal would be sent off. She fails to mention anything about their leaving by choice. The picture Gardner paints is one of great rejoicing once the Puritans are shipped off. Suddenly the tailer (Master Thankless) has increased business as everyone wants brightly colored clothes again, as they had been "deprived" of such by puritanical decree. Joy and gladness returns to the land and all that.

I think the book is unfair and incorrect, historically speaking. Yet it leaves the reader thinking ill of Puritans in general. It does have a ring of The Witch of Blackbird Pond to it (although that book was better written).

It is my opinion that I, Coriander is bad historical fiction. I love historical fiction in general as I think its a great way to interest children (and adults!) in the past. It sparks curiosity as to how things were. Gardner does a fair job of describing life in London in the 1600's but doesn't seem to feel the need to connect all (or many) of the dots.

All in all, I'd say this is a curious book that one could easily do without reading. It's poor storytelling (in the conclusion) and Gardner doesn't seem to have a very good grasp of history in general. I'd pass.


Rose said...

If you want a better done bit of historical fiction that leaves you wondering what was history and what was fiction, try The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey. That got me all inspired to explore and research whether Richard really did or did not kill those poor princes in the tower. THAT is the sort of historical fiction that inspires and motivates! (Although I didn't actually get around to reading up on it, so I still don't know for sure, so I still probably have a warped view of history...oh, well. It was a fascinating book.)

Sky said...

Most authors don't know the truth about the Puritans and tend to lie in their teeth about "facts".

Instead of researching documents and diaries from the actual time they rely on gossip and here say.

I for one know that the Puritans LOVED brightly colored clothing and they are the ones who started the very popular square, LOW neckline.

I don't know much about Cromwell..
I suppose I should research it!

B said...

I'm afraid that the Puritans always get a bashing, and largely out of ignorance. At the same time, from the historical research I have done, the character you described might represent an extreme example of a Puritan; it's just unfortunate that the author chose to use him as an example of all Puritans and not to balance him out with a more toned-down Puritan. I'm not opposed to extremes in writing as long as they're balanced; without the balance, you just have bad writing.

Thanks for the review--the book sounds interesting.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your review - it's good to know what to read *and* perhaps what not to read!

Anonymous said...

I must disagree with your review. I found I, Coriander a well written book, and a worth while one too, regardless of historicsl acuracy/inacuracy. Personly, I think the genere more fantasy than historical fiction.

Also, I do NOT think the authour is Puritan-bashing. Near the end of the book the main character meets a Puritan not nearly so nasty as the cruel Arise Fell, but quite the opposite. Besides, Arise Fell wasn't someone who loved and believed in the true message of Christianity, so could he even be called a Puritan? He was a crook, pure and simple, using the title of Preacher for his own purposes.

This book caused me to feel the pain and life of the characters so strongly that I urge others not to dismiss this book without even reading the first twenty pages. There is a lot to this book. It is a book that made me think and laugh. If you give it a chance, who knows what it'll make you do.

Josette said...

This book was quite enjoyable to me actually. But I felt bad while reading about Arise Fell. Yeah, he's an exciting character, probably one of the reasons why I kept reading the book.

Accurate or inaccurate facts, I did learn a thing or two of England's history.

Here's my review of the book. :)

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