Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory: A gripping new historical odyssey - book review -
When two unexpected visitors arrive at a ramshackle warehouse on the ‘wrong’ side of the River Thames in London in 1670, they set in motion a tale of greed, passion, lost love, and a lust for wealth, played out across two continents.
In the second book of her dark and atmospheric Fairmile series, Philippa Gregory turns her historian’s keen eye and novelist’s vivid imagination to a thrilling story that sweeps us from the poverty and glamour of England’s tumultuous Restoration period to the golden streets of Venice and the bitterly contested frontier of early America.
After the dramatic events in the remote coastal marshes of Sussex which featured in Tidelands, this gripping new historical odyssey skips forwards twenty-one years to catch up with the lives of Alinor Reekie, a healer and descendant of wise women, her daughter Alys Stoney, and Alinor’s brother Ned, a fierce Parliamentarian who fled England after King Charles II was restored to the throne.
And in her trademark style, Gregory delivers a seething, smouldering, stunning tale steeped in mystery, menace, mind games, and the challenges facing women in a prohibitively patriarchal world where to be strong or ‘different’ can only spell danger.
On Midsummer Eve in 1670, Alinor Reekie, still suffering ill health after her cruel witch ‘ducking’ two decades ago, and her tough, uncompromising daughter, Alys Stoney, are earning a living as wharfingers on the riverside in Bermondsey.
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From their little house next to the stinking mud and river’s ‘piers of weedy ramps,’ they witnessed the restored King Charles II sail by to his glorious court at Whitehall, but the family, which includes Alys’s adult twins Johnnie and Sarah, clings on to the old Puritan principles of hard work and thrift.
The arrival of two strangers on the same day causes a stir in the household… the first is Sir James Avery, the man who betrayed Alinor all those years ago in Sussex but still longs for her every day, and who instantly stands out as ‘a rich idler’ among the wharf’s labouring men.
James has returned as a widower and a wealthy man, hoping to find the lover he deserted and the son he believes was born to Alinor after she and Alys fled to London. He tells Alinor he now has everything to offer, including the favour of the king, but there is one thing that his money cannot buy… an heir.
The second visitor is a beautiful widow from Venice in deepest mourning. The Nobildonna Livia da Ricci claims Alinor as her mother-in-law and the grandmother of her baby son Matteo, and has come to tell Alinor that her beloved son Rob, who was a practising doctor, has drowned in the dark tides of the Venice lagoon.
But all is not as it seems and Alinor spells out her fears in a letter to her brother Ned who is newly arrived in Connecticut in faraway New England, and trying to make ‘a life of his own, without hurting another’ between the precarious worlds of the English newcomers and the American Indians as they move toward inevitable war.
Alinor tells him that she knows – without doubt – that ‘something’s out of true’ and that Rob is alive and the widow an imposter. But with her failing health, Alinor will need the help and gifts of her granddaughter Sarah’s inherited ‘sight’ if she is to uncover the truth…
Strong, determined women take centre stage once more in this new chapter for Alinor Reekie and her family as the resourceful, strong-willed Alys, the beautiful, unsettling Livia, and the inspirational Sarah – with her inherited gift of second sight – battle obstacles on all fronts.
And across the ocean, in the perilous world of New England, the steadfast Ned refuses to ignore his conscience and his powerful sense of justice as the treaties between the settlers and the native tribes start to crumble amidst resentment and incrimination, and the land grabbing escalates.
Reaching far beyond the murky waters of the Thames, Dark Tides is a story rich in imagination and the rawness of real history, relentlessly exposing the glaring social divides between poverty and privilege, and full of exquisitely observed characters from all walks of life.
With time and place captured perfectly, and Gregory’s immersive storytelling to embellish a compelling plot, the fascinating Fairmile series is flowing ever onwards as it journeys through England’s turbulent history.
(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £8.99)