It should be clear by now that I’m an appalling sexist, most especially in regard to novels written by women. There are certainly female authors I like (Sigrid Undset, Dorothy Sayers and P. D. James come to mind), but I approach novels written by women with almost (not quite; that would be impossible) the same level of trepidation I experience when approaching an actual woman in real life. Female novelists, in my experience, tend to a) write their male characters badly, and b) view the world through a Gender Studies lens.
I quickly decided that Ariana Franklin was an author in that mold as I read the historical mystery, Grave Goods. But persevering to the end, I decided I had been unjust (to a degree).
Franklin’s detective is Adelia Aguilar, a woman living in 12th Century England and attempting to operate as a physician. She’s a graduate of the School of Medicine in Salerno, but her sex prevents her from practicing legally. So she carries on the masquerade of being an assistant to Mansur, her eunuch Arab friend. He pretends to require her as an interpreter, while she does the actual diagnosis and treatment.
If that sounds a little implausible, I agree with you.
Adelia is in love with a man who was formerly a nobleman, but entered the church after she refused to marry him, and is now a bishop.
The mystery in Grave Goods surrounds the famous graves at Glastonbury. It’s not fiction that, after a devastating fire at the monastery and church there, a pair of skeletons were discovered in the graveyard. These were believed to be those of King Arthur and Guinevere. This discovery was useful to the church (which now had new relics to display) and to the Angevin kings, who were able to tell the rebellious Welsh, “Look, here’s King Arthur. He’s dead. He’s not sleeping in a cave, waiting to be awakened. He won’t be back to revive Britain. So you might as well accept the present government.”
King Henry II, who has employed Adelia before, summons her to Canterbury to examine the bones (hinting strongly that he would be very pleased if she declared them authentic). Adelia is not much impressed with this assignment, but becomes deeply concerned when a friend, who had traveled part of the way with her, completely disappears, along with her son and retinue, on the road. In trying to discover what happened, Adelia finds that the whole thing is intertwined with the puzzle of the Glastonbury skeletons, and she comes under threat from people who don’t want secrets disinterred.
I took a dislike to Adelia from the start. Her attitudes of scientific skepticism and hostility to men and male authority were just what I expected (and feared) in this kind of book. The woman was so clearly a modern feminist airdropped into an alien setting that it kept pulling me out of the story, reminding me that this was modern fiction. However, the author displayed more nuance than I expected. Adelia, it turns out, isn’t always right. She regrets some of her “enlightened” decisions, and finds that men aren’t always as stupid and unreliable as she expects.
All in all, the modern attitudes marred my enjoyment. The theology was very poor. But the story did draw me in and, in the end, compelled my interest.
I’d call it superior of its kind. Still more of a woman’s book than a man’s.
(This is another review of a pre-publication proof from G. P. Putnam’s Sons. The book was released in hardback this month.)