The Brethren by Robert Merle
I love the idea of getting stuck into reading an historical saga, I really do. I know I can do sagas spread over many novels – just not historical ones it seems. In particular, I started reading Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles with good intentions here but never progressed onto the second volume properly (I will one day though – I promise – for I loved Lymond as a character). Actually, I’ve can’t remember another historical series that I’ve followed through – ever.
Standalone historical novels are a different matter and I’ve read and enjoyed many over the years although I admit that books set in pre-Victorian milieux are not a genre of fiction that I read regularly. Also, I think I’m fed up of the Tudors which is why Wolf Hall etc are still sitting on my shelves.
I did think I’d have another try with The Brethren – the first volume in Robert Merle’s Fortunes of France saga – bestsellers on the continent, and now translated by T.Jefferson Kline for Pushkin Press. The Brethren was published in 1977; Merle’s thirteen volume saga took him 26 years to complete, the last volume appearing just before his death in 2004.
Périgord in the middle of the sixteenth century is our setting (Mary Tudor is on the English throne). This part of France has the feel of border country – the reach of the King is limited in this wild region. Two veteran soldiers, who adopt each other as true brothers, arrive to make their home in a run-down castle, for which they outbid the neighbouring landowner who had hoped to win it for a song.
The Brethren as they are known, set about working their lands and renovating the castle giving employment to many. They are seen as fair, but tinged by the new faith of the Huguenots, which is not relieved when the younger of the two Jeans marries the beautiful Catholic daughter of a local baron – and there will always be tension between Jean and Isabelle over it.
Civil war is looming between the two religions … and that is where I left the novel at about page 80.
I didn’t warm to the style of writing and don’t know whether that is due to Merle or the translator. I just found it all very dry indeed and had a sinking feeling that it would be all too much about the soldiering, and not enough about the brothers and their families. The introduction was very slow and unlike Lymond, I didn’t get a feel for either of the Jeans at all – they were just too aloof and, dare I say it, too good. If I’m to invest in a reading a saga, I need interesting exciting characters. I’m sure they will have their day later but I have too many other books to read to give them more time. DNF
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The Brethren (Fortunes of France)by Robert Merle, trans T.Jefferson Kline. Pub Sept 2014 by Pushkin Press, Trade paperback, 416 pages.