Today, the Monkey takes a bold walk through Canada's past.
Boy, it is freakin' cold out. Luckily, the Monkey has a built-in coat of fur.
Look out! Trappers!
by Margaret Sweatman (2009)
I admit, while I may not read the genre as much as I should, I harbour a great admiration for the writers of historical fiction. To immerse oneself in the literature, to sift through the data to come up with new words, new modes of thought, new ways of seeing the world so that it will seem fresh to the reader even though couched in the past and only filtered through 21st-century sensibilities; it is a skill greatly to be envied. See, even writing about writing about historical fiction makes you adopt a tone of haughty historical privilege.
But research means nothing (less than nothing, really) without the skill as a writer to back it up; see (better yet, don't) James Patterson's The Murder of King Tut, an abysmal slice of hackery wherein the author brags continuously about the copious amounts of research he has done, yet the end result being so false and inauthentic it reads as if he cribbed his entire book from the Wikipedia entry on Egypt.
But Margaret Sweatman, thank the gods, has talent, and gallons of it. She has a poet's ear, a librarian's passion for research, and a storyteller's verve, which makes the Winnipeg author's fourth novel The Players a vastly entertaining read.
The Players is set in Restoration-era England, among the fops and finery of the court of King Charles II. It was a place of style and grace, where violence was commonplace but yet "even the convicted regicides died (hanged, drawn and quartered, burned, their ashes licked up by dogs) in a gentlemanly manner." But Sweatman takes pains to assure us that, despite all the outward frippery, there is an underbelly of rot that coats every action. The city of London is beset by the Plague, and all the silks and linens in the country cannot hide the rot that seeps through. The outward illusion of civility only masks the innate corruptibility of our bodies. In one vivid aside, she notes that amongst a group of men visiting the King, "two or three were so well dressed that they'd not been successful in relieving themselves, which added a certain damp caution to walking already made risky by ill-fitting shoes on a stone floor. That acid scent of pizzle."
In this age, a woman's place is chosen by men, and it is only the smartest or most cunning woman that gains any sense of independence for herself. Such a woman is Lilly Cole, 16-year old actress and mistress to the king, and woman that weaves a dark spell on most men who cross her path. Yet Lilly still lives "in a bubble made by men," convincing herself that she has freedom denied other women yet still always at the mercy of the gentlemen who surround her. These include King Charles II; Bartholomew, Second Earl of Buxborough, a drunken poet/playwright who was an adoptive son of the Court after his father "died of the stomach"; and the repulsive Sir George Rose, "an irritable old Royalist" who comes to view Lilly as a threat after she kills a vile gentleman in self-defence.
Coming into this seething den of affected politeness are Médard Des Groseilliers and Pierre Radisson, two French explorers seeking financing to discover the Northwest Passage to China. The duo are ill-equipped to deal with the less-direct methods of business of the English Court, which leads to some lovely examples of dark humour: "They were all navigating by instinct, filled with a sense of inadequacy for a loathsome task. The disease of conversation, foul business." They would appear at odds with the King and his cohorts, but as with the clothing, the money of the kingdom is an illusion as well; "The trade must bring us a great deal of money," Charles whispers to his cousin Rupert, "or we are thoroughly stewed."
It would not do to give away too many plot point, but suffice to say, the machinations of the plot result in the adventurers being provided ships, and Lilly and Bartholomew being smuggled aboard. Thus, the novel changes acts, and the gentility of England is summarily replaced with the bleakness of Canada. Lilly finds herself on an expedition headed by Magnus Brown, an eccentric genius: "Magnus Brown weighed more than seventeen stone. His head weighed more than a lamb. He wasn't fat, he was a living fact."
At its base, The Players is about a woman making her way through a universe ruled by men, doing whatever it takes to survive, which makes Lilly as much an explorer/adventurer as Des Groseilliers and Radisson. Lilly is the main 'player' in The Players, but in a way, all the characters are only acting their parts to achieve their true desires. The novel is also about the death of entire worlds, whole societies, replacing them with a new one, that of 'civilization.' As the explorers rue, "Civilization will seep into everything, it will mimic, steal, atom by atom, yes, like that, so that nothing evermore will be free of falsity." In The Players, the entire world is being slowly transformed, becoming an actor as well, disguising its feral nature underneath the trappings of enlightenment.
Sweatman brings a wonderful sense of flair to the proceedings, finessing new methods of viewing the world. Her eyes and ears tend toward the poetic, reminding one at times of Michael Ondaatje's texture-heavy texts, but Sweatman has a lighter touch. Sometimes, overly poetic language can become annoying, but when Sweatman writes of Lilly's body, "When she was lying down, her pelvis seemed like a basin of milk," all is forgiven. I love a sentence that gives me pause, savouring the imagery. When Magnus, tongue-tied, tries to work out his feelings toward Lilly, Sweatman magnificently captures both his turmoil and the universe he inhabits in a few choice phrases: "Silence poured down on him, but he ruined it with words, words pearled like the white fat on moose kidney." Lovely, that.
Sweatman also, as noted above, does her research, throwing in huge chunks of historical exposition that never feel superfluous. Much of The Players could serve as a primer for the mechanics of Restoration English society. The upper class walk the streets in urine-spotted pants because of the ridiculous methods of keeping them in place; Lilly, needing a contraceptive, at first uses a gummy mixture of manure, then upgrades to a "sea sponge wrapped in silk, an elegant pessary." Prince Rupert, wearing a constantly blood-soaked bandage about his head, reveals that he uses a technique of self-trepanning to relieve the pressure on his brain.
The Players is part bodice-ripper, part adventure, and part comedy of manners, and Sweatman is a bold conductor of the whole affair.
VERDICT: MONKEY LIKES A LOT