The Crimson Ribbon
Buy or Borrow: Buy
Source: Copy courtesy of BookBridgr and the publisher!
It's 1646, the Civil War is raging on, there's unrest everywhere, and the hysteria of witchcraft is sweeping through the outer counties.
When Ruth and her mother attend the birth of a local woman, and that baby is born already dead, with the mother dying shortly after, the womans husband, Isaac Tuttle, accuses Ruth's mother of witchcraft, the villagers are quick to back him and Ruth barely escapes the horrifying scene with her life...her mother is not so lucky. Ruth has to flee from the Cromwell household, the only home she has ever known and make her way to London with the help of ex-army man Joseph Oakes.
When they reach London, Ruth finds her way to the Poole household, and fast becomes enchanted with Elizabeth "Lizzie" Poole. It's not long before Ruth becomes close with Lizzie, and Joseph takes an interest in Ruth. But when Isaac Tuttle shows up in London, a friend of Joseph's, and Lizzie is cast out and accused of being a with by her Pastor, the girls flee London to the safety of Abingdon. But things fast go downhill. Lizzie changes, and when they have to go to back to London, it isn't long before Lizzie's radical thinking gets them both in trouble, especially when Lizzie speaks out to the court about the execution of the King.
"I always thought that as I grey older I would not be so afraid of the world and the people in it"
The Crimson Ribbon enthralls you from the first page with the very first line, and from that point on you're sucked in to the world painted so vividly by the author. It's truly gripping the entire way through. I was unable to put it down, finding myself thoroughly engrossed in the journey Ruth was on and the events of the London of the time.
The Crimson Ribbon was utterly heartbreaking and devastating from the beginning, right through until the end. Like Ruth says, her story starts with a hanging and ends with a hanging, and there's plenty of heartbreak in between. While it makes you feel sad for Ruth, it also opens your eyes to what it was like to live in the time, how hard things where for the people and how precarious. Death was always around the corner in those days, plague, common illnesses could end in death, an accusation from the right people could end in a hanging and so on.
The story, the characters both real and fictional, and the world where all written so realistically and so believably, more so than most historical novels I've read. It's obvious so much work and research has gone in to the book, and you can get a wealth of information from the book without having everything explained to you in the narrative in huge info-dumps. Characters will mention something, or something will be concisely explained, there's no pages and pages of "this happened because this and this and then that happened" and so on.
I'm a bit of a fail of a history geek in regards to the Civil War, it's not an area I know too much about, and to be honest I know more about the Salem Witch Trials than the ones that took place here. I came away from the book knowing a great deal more than I originally did. We see how witchcraft was an easy blame for people who wanted revenge for petty slights, wanted an excuse for cheating on their wife, or wanted someone to blame for an accident of nature. We learned what was going on with the Civil War, the King being tried for treason and being beheaded after much debate, the court, the army taking over, what the people thought of it and so on. Then we get a look at how people accused of witchcraft where treated and what a trial was like. We even get to have a look at the printing presses of the time, that was very interesting. You get all that within a couple of hundred pages, and to be honest, I grasped what was going on easily, and understood the politics of the time a lot better than if I'd been reading history textbook to be honest!
The authors note also has a couple of pages packed with a lot of interesting information about the real Elizabeth Poole, who she was, what we know about her from the records, it's quite sad that no-one knows what happened to her in the end. You also get to see the front of one of the pamphlets that Elizabeth Poole had printed regarding her vision, which ya know....is pretty cool!
The historical threads of fact where woven so seamlessly with the storyline and the lives of our characters, both real and fictional, that you weren't having facts shoved in your face. It was very subtle and very interesting to read about. You get a real feel for the atmosphere of the time.
Detail, is another thing there was plenty of, but without pages of text describing a tree or something. We get lots of detail, with just a few words. This detail extends to the more brutal moments as well as the more normal moments, the hangings, their time in the prison, all where described vividly with enough detail to make it seem like you where there, as well as the details of London at the time.
A lot of the time, historical novels romanticize the time, I've said this before, they try to make it seem like living in poverty, filth and so on was somehow glorious, when I imagine it was far from it. Clements, however, is refreshingly and brutally honest, for example when describing a London street, she mentions the "vile filth" in the street and later the "shit" in the gutter. It gives you an honest picture of the time and what the city and area was like.
The world building was so detailed, so honest and vivid, that I really felt like I was there, smelling the rather ripe (and that's being polite), streets of London, experiencing the filthy and dank cell with Ruth and so on. It was a truly fascinating world, and one of the things I loved about the book was the brutal honesty in the descriptions of the time and the places.
For every brutally honest descroption of the time there where beautifully written ones, almost lyrical.
"Houses stretching their eaves towards the thin streak of light, as if gasping for air"
"Lantern-hung wherries darting between them like fireflies"And those are just two out of a whole book full of them, I chose these two because you can still see some semblance of them today in modern day London. Well, at least with the houses/skyscrapers, stand on a bridge at London at night and I'd imagine, while there are boats, it's a lot lighter than it would have been back then.
The injustice of the book is so devastating it actually makes you feel both sad for the victims and angry on their behalf. It's heartrending and devastating and more than once it's absolutely mind boggling. I mean, we've all been pissed off before and wanted to get back at people, but I certainly wouldn't sentence someone to what Ruth went through with a lie, that will ultimately end up in a rather nasty death. It's horrifying when you think about how everyone killed for being a witch was actually innocent, and in the book you experience what would have happened to those women in real life, through Ruth, being strip searched by other women, questioned and repeatedly pushed to confess, they where all practically starved, and most of them would have confessed just to get it over with.
Evidence was made up and believed, lies where told and so on and you see in the book how someones account of something, with a bit of acting can be turned round to the poor woman accused, to help someone else get away with something. Clements paints a vivid and horrifying scene of the conditions they where kept in, but more importantly, what happened to the women. They where watched for 3days/nights, with no sleep, no food and no drink to see if the "devils imps" come to them, being in those conditions would have made them see things, and as soon as they spoke about them they'd have their "proof". As I said, the injustice and unfairness was truly mind boggling.
It really makes you think, about that kind of thing and what life was like then. Particularly, when at one point, Ruth ironically wonders "what harm words can do in the end" after the trial. You kind of think back over the book so far and the trial and you realize exactly what harm words and lies can do.
You really get a sense of how simple it was back then. Famine meant God was angry that the King wasn't on the throne. Cows dying, crops failing and sickness meant the village had been cursed by the spirit of a dead witch, in this case Annies mother's. You also see how much religion was taken seriously by everyone at the time, whereas now it's not as important to everyone. Back then everyone believed and worshiped and so on.
Ruth is an interesting character, I felt so much empathy for her, because after what happened to her mother she was vulnerable and she got snared in by Lizzie. That's the rather original thing about this book, we see Lizzie become lovers with Ruth as well as a woman called Thomasine, which is not a relationship that is portrayed in historical novels much if at all, and it was very well done. I loved the idea that she was the illegitimate daughter of Oliver Cromwell, as the author says, there's no proof he didn't have one, it was a source of intrigue throughout the book, why Oliver was so worried about a servant.
Lizzie was a harder character to work out. Instead of being given hints she was something other than she appeared, we see Lizzie how Ruth does, so in the beginning, like Ruth, you see her kindness and you feel sorry for her when she's thrown out of her congregation. It's not until a bit later that you realize she's got some very radical views that she's been printing. When Ruth realises Lizzie isn't all that innocent, you get an entirely different picture of her. She comes across as cruel to Ruth, controlling when she burns Ruth's letter from Cromwell without letting her read it, duplicitous, she constantly lies and hurts Ruth and stabs her in the back, I would go so far as to maybe say she emotionally blackmails her once or twice. I couldn't work out if she was very manipulative, or if she was very crazy at one point. At times Lizzie seemed to be quite ahead of her time, some of what she was saying about equality, almost matched feminist views in the present day.
Each of the characters where very colourful, full of life and very complex. They all have dark pasts, Joseph, Lizzie and Ruth that is, that you find out about along with Ruth. It's a source of intrigue, but your opinion of Joseph and Lizzie changes along with Ruth as she learns more information. I mean I disliked Lizzie a lot at one point, but in the end I just felt sorry for her.
The Crimson Ribbon is perfectly paced. We cover a lot of time in the book, but at points, the passing of a chunk of time is just marked and acknowledged, instead of lived through, if that makes sense. Like at one point it was summer and when the next chapter starts it mentions how "it rained all summer but now the leaves are turned". The flow was smooth, the narrative engaging and....like I said....gripping.
The Crimson Ribbon is a fascinating, gripping, original and truly fantastic novel, full of history and beautifully vivid details. It stands out from it's fellow historical novels, and I couldn't recommend it enough!