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Charlotte Betts is the author of the award winning The Apothecary’s Daughter. She followed this debut novel with The Painter’s Apprentice and The Spice Merchant’s Wife, which, whilst the first novels are excellent, surpasses them as regards perfect pitch writing, superb plotting and importantly, very convincing characterisation. All three novels are set between the mid and late seventeenth century. I enjoyed each for differing reasons- The Apothecary’s Daughter is a riveting novel set during The Plague, remarkable for its Cinderella story and attention to historical detail; The Painter’s Apprentice is a court drama and a love story: The Spice Merchant’s Wife is set during the years following The Great Fire of 1666 and this one also contains a romance but it is a sinister thriller too. It has wonderful descriptions of London during the years following The Fire. It has already won one prize and I predict others will follow.
‘London August 1666’, and, ‘The summer had been swelteringly hot with barely any rain to wash away the dust and stench and I was not alone in wishing it to end.’ Not only is this a well-pitched first sentence, perfect in its simplicity but it draws the reader into this particular time and into this busy, commercial city alongside its protagonist Katherine whose story we follow closely as she faces trauma, extreme danger and falls in love. It is followed with ‘The city was hot and dry as a tinderbox and all anyone could do was to find a shady place to sit very still.’ Excellent first paragraph and I am there, hooked.
Katherine’s husband is a wealthy spice-merchant, their marriage arranged, her inheritance plundered by a greedy aunt. Although clearly unsuited, the couple are determined to make the best of things. As the story opens Katherine is looking forward to Robert’s return from a long voyage and to moving out of her in-laws home into one of their own. However, the fire sweeps through the city and puts an end to her hopes and aspirations. Everything, including their warehouse that is ‘stacked to the gunnels’, is lost. The family are utterly down on their fortunes. Debts cannot be paid, prison threatens, and, as London begins to recover, work is hard to find and the city is lawless. The narrative moves with as many twists and turns as the dark London lanes that is its landscape. Enter a rogue builder and the narrative’s thriller element follows. The plot turns on Katherine’s attempts to expose Mr Hackett the builder who is out to ruthlessly deceive and make his fortune out of Christopher Wren’s new plans for the city.
Will Katherine survive as this man determines to destroy her future? She does have a potential saviour, of course, in Gabrielle Harte, the perfume maker. Along with his wife, Jane, he befriends Katherine in a relationship that, as the story evolves, becomes a little reminiscent of Jane Eyre. The characters are all very well drawn, the in laws, husband Robert, Gabriel and the hideous, evil Hackett who could even be one of Dickens’ meanest 19th C constructions, and Jane, who becomes Katherine’s close friend which presents yet another dilemma.
The narrative is written in first person past tense which brought me particularly close to Katherine. I stood in her shoes, saw others through her eyes and travelled London’s streets smelling and seeing as she did. The sights and sounds are there lurking about Fish Hill, Thames Street, Mincing Lane, Lombard Street and the wharves. There are link boys lighting the dim thoroughfares, swaying coaches, smells such as rotting fish, mud and rubbish and a dreadful cellar with a suspicious stink. I was especially party to Katherine’s emotions and wanted her not to make mistakes as she navigated this landscape. Most of all I wanted her to find happiness and, since Ms Betts presents her readers with a deal of jeopardy threatening this possible outcome, the novel is incredibly page turning.
The plotting is skilful. Ms Betts covers suspicion and blame, speculation and financial ruin with superb confidence. And isn’t it a universal theme that when disasters strike in no matter which era people do endeavour to recover and hold on to optimism as does Gabriel Harte. Yet, in this novel, I particularly admired the writer’s integration of small details of day to day life in a mid-seventeenth century world. Her research is thorough and her writing beautifully crafted. The Spice Merchant’s Wife is a fast-paced narrative with engaging characters and a brilliant plot. It is as rich a story and delightful as the topaz silk out of which Katherine fashions a precious gown.
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The Spice Merchant's Wife is available from all bookshops and as an e book.
Carol McGrath is the author of The Handfasted Wife published by Accent Press and available from Amazon and all other e readers. It is also a paperback.