Thursday, February 23, 2012
Chateau of Echoes by Siri Mitchell
Chateau of Echoes is my first “keeper” book of 2012. The first book that makes me want to leaf through it again in search of all of the treasures and snippets and revelatory moments which may have evaded me during my inaugural reading. Siri Mitchell, alongside Lynn Austin and Dale Cramer, is my favourite Christian novelist.I have adored her previous work and her strong literary elements and thematic devices. In fact, I was thrilled to be an INSPYs judge when She Walks in Beauty received the well-deserved award for Best Historical Novel of the year.
Chateau of Echoes is a thesis on passion: passion for stories, passion for legend, passion for research and passion for history--- social history----food, wine, dancing, exploration, myths and stories. In fact, excavation runs as an apt undercurrent throughout the text. Widowed Freddie owns a chateau in Brittany, France. Here, she is pursued by the many readers and lovers of the history of a young medieval diarist named Alix: whose grasp of English and languages is remarkable and rare considering the station of women in her age.
The writing is beyond what is usually housed in the Christian fiction genre. If you are an avid Christian fiction reader like myself, who also has a penchant for sleek literary merit then this is a book you can unashamedly thrust at your non-Christian friends. The themes of God and acceptance are grappled with in a natural and stormy way. Indeed, like so many of Mitchell’s heroines, Freddie’s coming-to-terms with Faith and Grace is a tumultuous journey which requires some semblance of self-sacrifice and the giving of one’s way to a Higher Power. We learn that Freddie’s deceased husband was an atheist and the guilt that has accrued from his passing keeps Freddie at a distance from her Creator. One Christmas returning to church after a long drought, she explains: “Looking back on those years, I realized I had missed the wonder of Christmas and the contemplation of the divine. I missed meditating on the sacred moment when God reached down and touched the earth. Peter viewed Christmas as an opportunity to ease the collective guilt our culture had accumulated throughout the year.” And further:
“Neither of us understood a word; but the liturgy was so familiar it seemed as if no one was there to actually hear it, but to experience it. To enter a stone country church lit by candlelight on the holiest evening of the year.” The mystery and mystic nuances of the celebrated Season help broaden the theme of legend and spun tale. For example, the teenage diarist Alix, so followed in the tale and such an object of affection for a visiting phd student and the brash Robert Cranwell: author of numerous celebrated novels now only coming to terms with his desire to write something of greater substance, spends the ilk of a season penning a great mystery play.
The relationships between men and women past and present is not easily dissolved when taken in great, galloping gulps as this novel affords. In the past we have Alix and her relationship, as of yet unconsummated by her husband, Awen. Her struggle to come to grips with the man who approaches her bedchamber only to weave a tapestry of narrative ( not unlike a Scheherazadean tale) each night echoes the modern day presence of Cranwell, the competent writer who invades Freddie’s life and chateau for months. Yet, to mull on the idea of male and female voice one must also consider the great pains given to make each voice heard across the ages: sure, Awen spins the nightly tales (painstakingly researched legends and fables collected by Mitchell); but it is Alix who is modern in her ability to read and write many languages and script a Mystery play that her husband will ultimately take credit for. In present, it is Robert Cranwell who will pen Alix’s story for the world to hear; but the narrative voice belongs to Freddie.
The presence of Guinevere, of the story of the Holy Grail, of King Arthur and his Knights and of Joseph of Arimathea and the history of the grail are all prominent here and so well infused you feel as if they are sparking off the page and you are a guest at the Chateau in a similar manner to Cranwell.
Mitchell is an ardent traveler and her details as to French culture and food ( even on a sojourn Freddie takes to Italy) are so well-penned you are gifted a sort of travelogue within in a novel. I know for certain that I want to hunt out all of the magical portions of France painted in this tale. Her passion becomes even more acute when paired with the amount of detail provided at the end of the novel: recipes, Breton History, even a Medieval calendar to guide readers through the inserted passages of Alix’s diary.
The balance between the past and the present and the seamless weaving of their thoughts on love, doubt, faith and redemption are so well-balanced: like a carefully-tipped literary see-saw.
I was remarkably impressed by Mitchell’s fresh narrative style in A Constant Heart and more still when she penned Love’s Pursuit: what is destined to be a modern Christian classic. Chateau of Echoes should NOT be limited just to the faith-reader public. It is far too exceptional and far too beautifully written. Yes, there are elements of faith; but they are sprinkled to highlight constant doubt in the presence and the structure of history.
If you are in a book club you NEED to pick this book as a future read. There are some thought-provoking discussion questions included ( and not the usual range of “what colour of heroine’s hair would you most like to have” and trash like that)
I cannot believe this book has not found a larger publishing house or bigger reading base.