Book review: Beautiful Star & Other Stories by Andrew Swanston
History isn't just about the big names and the big battles'¦ the past is littered with the little people who experience history as it happens.
In a stunning collection of short stories, Andrew Swanston – author of the Thomas Hill novels set during the English Civil War – delivers a fascinating new perspective on the past, proving that history is brought alive not by those who created it, but by the people it affects.
Swanston, who has held various positions in the book trade including being a director of Waterstones, has plucked a rich assortment of ordinary characters – many of them gleaned from the footnotes of history – and employed them as emotive witnesses to some extraordinary events.
From an 11th century monk who dreams of flying like Icarus and the young girl who watches her grandmother tried as a witch to the small boy who befriends Charles II as he hides in a tree from Cromwell’s men and the woman who led the Royalist defence of Corfe Castle in 1645, these are stories that capture the very essence of history.
Each of the seven historical gems is based on a true event and includes both real and fictional characters as the author’s vivid imaginative powers and extensive historical knowledge transport us into the lives and times of a diverse collection of men, women and children.
Lead story – and perhaps one of the most moving in this collection – is Beautiful Star, a vivid insight into a hard-working fishing community in the Fife village of St Monans in 1875 in the months leading up to a fierce storm which tore through the herring fleet.
The tragedy plays out through the eyes of young Julia Paterson whose father commissions a new fishing boat called Beautiful Star from Sinclair’s yard. Julia and the yard owner’s son Willy Sinclair grow close during the boat’s construction but soon they will share a terrible grief that consumes almost every family in St Monans.
Another engaging player is Eilmer, the Benedictine monk at an abbey near Malmesbury in the year 1002 when the town was not just immensely wealthy but also the capital of England. In The Flying Monk, we learn that Eilmer dreams of one day flying after reading the ancient legend of Daedalus and Icarus who made wax wings to escape from the island of Crete. In a feat of daring, Eilmer plans to make his dream come true.
In HMS Association, Swanston introduces us to Daniel Jones from Falmouth who is ‘pressed’ into the navy and sets sail for France with the fleet from Portsmouth in 1708 and witnesses the savage Siege of Toulon in which Napoleon Bonaparte played a leading role.
A Witch and a Bitch recalls an age of intolerance and prejudice as we focus on the troubled life of Jane Wenham, better known as the Witch of Walkern in Hertfordshire, through the eyes of her seven-year-old granddaughter.
The ill-treatment of Jane Wenham, who was one of the last women to be tried for witchcraft in 1712, exposes not just the prejudices of the judicial system at the time but also the bigoted attitudes of ordinary people.
There are uplifting stories here – like the gutsy Lady Mary Bankes, a mother of twelve, who courageously defended Corfe Castle from Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War – and revealing tales like The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy which features two boys coming face-to-face with the grim realities of war at the Battle of Waterloo.
But what each story has in common is exquisite craftsmanship, elegant writing and an outstanding sense of time and place as we discover what it was like to stand either in the midst or on the living margins of real history.
Revealing, inspiring and entertaining, Swanston’s collection is proof that short story writing is a true art.
(The Dome Press, paperback, £8.99)