30/11/2007

Gates of Paradise (by Beryl Kingston)

I've only read one book by Beryl Kingston up till now. It was a modern novel, written ten years ago, called 'Gemma's Secret'. When I read it, I thought I might find more by the same author, but until recently had not done so.

Gates of Paradise' is the kind of novel that brings history alive. It's an intriguing mixture of fact and fiction, focused mainly on the life of the poet William Blake - whom I knew nothing about, prior to reading this book. Beryl Kingston has constructed a very believable Blake, in a historical context which fits well with biographical details that I have since looked up on Wikipedia.

Blake and his wife Catherine move to the village of Felpham in Sussex at the start of this novel, in the year 1800. He is a highly emotional man, subject to strange visions and extreme dejection, but he is also honest and hard-working, and soon earns the respect of his neighbours.

Meanwhile, two of Blake's patron's servants, Johnnie and Betsy start 'walking out' and soon become more and more intimate. The story of their love affair runs alongside the time when the Blakes settle into their new home, and make friends.

As well as this, there is a brief introductory letter at the start of each of the first few chapters, written by a lawyer in 1850, as he researches some information about William Blake. The letters - to his wife - show increasing impatience with the locals, who refuse entirely to answer his questions about a court case which Blake was involved in. As the story moves forward, the events leading up to the court case (something which did actually happen) come to life.

Blake was not a conventional man of the period, and some of his different morality theories are explored in the storyline. It's also an excellent piece of social history, thoroughly researched by the author's late husband. The real and the fictional are so well-blended that I had no idea which parts were factual until I did some of my own research. I still don't know for sure which of the minor characters were real people.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book once I got into it. I found it rather slow-moving to start with, and mildly irritating in places, but once the story got going I read with enthusiasm. It's extremely well-written, feels authentic, and has helped me understand William Blake as a real person rather than a mere name at the end of some poems.

Apparently the hardback version of this is currently out of print in the USA, and the paperback version not yet available there.

(My longer review of Gates of Paradise is at The Bookbag site)

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