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Book review: Under The Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan

If you’re looking for an epic love story filled with adventure that takes in Europe, North America and Polynesia along the way, and that has at its heart a real couple, Under the Wide and Starry Sky could be just the book for you. If you’re a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry or prose, even better, because this is Nancy Horan’s brilliant fictionalisation of his meeting and subsequent marriage to Fanny van de Grift.

At the age of thirty-five, Fanny van de Grift Osbourne has left her philandering husband in San Francisco to set sail for Belgium to study art, with her three children and nanny in tow. Not long after her arrival, however, tragedy strikes, and Fanny and her brood repair to a quiet artists’ colony in France where she can recuperate. There she meets Robert Louis Stevenson, ten years her junior, who is instantly smitten with the earthy, independent, and opinionated belle Americaine.

A woman ahead of her time, Fanny does not immediately take to the young lawyer who longs to devote his life to literature rather than the law – and who would eventually write such classics as Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In time, though, she succumbs to Stevenson’s charms, and the two begin a fierce love affair – marked by intense joy and harrowing darkness that spans decades as they travel the world for the sake of his health following their art and dreams eventually settling in Samoa where Robert Louis Stevenson is buried, with these words on his grave:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

(Requiem, Robert Louis Stevenson)

The first thing that struck me on reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky was how well Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny van de Grift are brought alive on the page. They are both larger than life characters – Fanny had to be to be any kind of match for Robert – but Nancy Horan not only seems to have found their voices in the pages of their diaries and letters she used in her research but she’s been able to capture the essence of those and channel them into Under a Wide and Starry Sky by writing situations, conversation and behaviour that all seem to hold true. Read more

Book Review and #Giveaway: The English Girl by Katherine Webb

Thanks to an open book club event run by Book-ish in Crickhowell earlier this year, I read Katherine Webb’s The English Girl when it came out in hardback. Actually, thinking about it, a friend lent me their proof copy because I was so eager to read it before the event, and meeting Katherine. It was the first book of hers that I’d read, although she was an author whose novels I’d been meaning to read for some time – three were waiting patiently on my bookshelves – and the event bumped her up to the top of the TBR pile. Shortly after finishing The English Girl, I bought the remaining two so that I wasted no further time in reading her entire backlist. You can probably guess from all of this that I absolutely loved The English Girl, and because it’s out in paperback today, not only am I going to share my review of it but I’m also going to do a giveaway because when you find a great book, you want other people to read it and this’ll make it easier for one of you.

Joan Seabrook, a fledgling archaeologist, has fulfilled her lifelong dream to travel to Arabia and has arrived in the ancient city of Muscat with her fiancé, Rory. Desperate to escape the pain of a personal tragedy, she longs to explore the desert fort of Jabrin and unearth the wonders held within.

But Oman is a land lost in time, and in the midst of violent upheaval gaining permission to explore could prove impossible. Joan’s disappointment is only eased by the thrill of meeting her childhood heroine, pioneering explorer Maude Vickery, and hearing the stories that captured her imagination and sparked her ambition as a child.

The friendship that forms between the two women will change everything. Both have desires to fulfil and secrets to keep. As their bond grows, Joan is inspired by the thrill of her new friend’s past and finds herself swept up in a bold and dangerous adventure of Maude’s making. Only too late does she begin to question her actions – actions that will spark a wild, and potentially devastating, chain of events.

Will the girl that left England for this beautiful but dangerous land ever find her way back?

What I love about historical fiction is that it often provides me with heroines who I wouldn’t find in or have heard about from history books, shining a light on either overlooked or little known women. And even in the case of fictional heroines, whether or not they’re inspired by real women of the time, hearing the story of a certain time and place from a female perspective, which can be quite different to how their male counterparts would have experienced things, helps me question and hopefully expand my understanding of other places and cultures at various periods throughout history. (And no, I’m not taking novels as fact in the place of history books but they can help bring it alive in a way that sparks an interest into a novel’s events and background which, in turn, leads to further reading and research.) In The English Girl, despite its title, there are not one, but two pioneering women, even if the more modern of the two doesn’t start out intending to be as adventurous and as much of a risk-taker as she ultimately turns out to be. Read more

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