The Book of Life by Deborah Harkness

Reviewed by Harriet Devine

book of lifeThe Book of Life is indeed a mighty tome, as Dan Brown would say. I read it with great delight, but was seriously wondering all the time how on earth I could do justice to it.  For a start, this is the third part of what’s known as the All Souls Trilogy, and you might benefit from at least a smattering of knowledge of what’s gone before in the first two similarly enormous volumes.

Basically, in the first volume, The Discovery of Witches,  you meet the central protagonists of the trilogy: Diana Bishop, a history professor from Yale with a research interest in alchemy, and Matthew Clairmont, an Oxford geneticist. But Diana just happens to be a witch, descended from a long line of witches going back at least to the Salem witch trials of 1692, and the unutterably gorgeous Matthew has been a vampire since the middle ages. Naturally the two of them fall in love, though unions between witches and vampires are strictly forbidden. But they also embark on a quest to find the vital missing pages from an ancient manuscript that Diana has uncovered in the Bodleian Library, the search for which takes them whizzing through time and space throughout all three volumes.

When we last met this attractive though undoubtedly unusual couple, they had spent most of  volume two,  Shadow of Night, in the 1590s,  owing to Diana’s ability as a time-walker. They had a lovely time in Elizabethan London, and a pretty scary one in the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague. And, while all these adventures were going on, Diana had managed to become pregnant, something previously considered to be impossible given their mixed creature-hoods.

Now, in the present volume, Diana’s pregnancy is well advanced, but both she and Matthew are in grave danger. One of Matthew’s sons, Benjamin Fox, is a very bad vampire indeed. He keeps sending horrible videos (yes, we are back in the present day) to his father, showing a the dreadful condition of a witch he has imprisoned in his house – he is attempting to impregnate her but if she fails to conceive he will kill her, as he has done with many of her predecessors, and untold numbers of other people. Then he plans to kidnap Diana and try his plan with her. Benjamin must clearly be stopped, but the problem is that nobody knows where he is. Matthew has his own problems, too – he suffers from a condition that afflicts a few unfortunate vampires – it is known as blood rage and, as you may be able to guess, it makes them uncontrollably angry when roused by extreme events. Matthew has managed to control his in various ways, but absence from Diana causes it to rear its head, and unfortunately circumstances mean the couple cannot be together for a considerable time….

Well, I’m sure you get the general idea. Perhaps you are thinking that it all sounds rather silly, and on one level of course it is. Certainly the novels demand a very large suspension of disbelief. But if you are prepared to throw yourself in to Matthew and Diana’s world, there are huge treats in store. For one thing, the novels blend fact and fiction in what I find to be a supremely satisfying way. Deborah Harkness is a prize-winning historian of science and currently a professor at the University of California. So the historical background is presumably pretty trustworthy. Of course this really came into its own in volume 2, in which I learned a lot about the practice of alchemy in the sixteenth century, and about attitudes to witchcraft. In that novel Diana was befriended by Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, who was a poet and an alchemist,  and the pictures of sixteenth century London and Prague were very vivid and convincing. In the present novel we are back in the 21st century, but there’s still a great deal of fascinating information about genetics, which mingles nicely with traditional views of witchcraft and vampire lore.

What’s fun about all this is that the novel makes perfect sense of some things that may have puzzled us for years. For example, when Diana needs to find her way to Matthew’s London house, she asks his cousin to give her directions.

“It’s in Mayfair, on a little street near the Connaught. Why?”

“I need the key. And the address.” Diana paused for a moment, mulling something over before she spoke. “I’ll need a driver, too, to get around the city. Daemons like the Underground, and vampires own all the major cab companies”.

Of course they owned the cab companies. Who else had the time to memorize the three hundred and twenty routes, twenty-five thousand streets, and twenty-thousand landmarks within Charing Cross, that were required in order to get a license?

And, of course, we mustn’t forget Diana and Matthew’s love story.  Yes, it’s deep and passionate, but love, and marriage, and parenthood, take on a different complexion when one half of the couple is going to live for a normal span of years and the other has been around since the middle ages and, barring extreme circumstances, will be living for centuries to come. How this particular conundrum will work itself out we shall never know, unless Harkness takes pity on her many readers and decides to move things on into the future. It would certainly be good to know what Diana is going to use her new-found and exceptional powers for. And of course there are the twins, who, though only a few months old at the end here, are already showing signs of having remarkable abilities of their own.

As you can tell, I really loved this novel, though it’s not a genre I would normally be attracted to. I whizzed through its nearly 600 pages in record time, and still felt sorry when I’d finished it.  If you’re a fan, you won’t need any urging. If not, why not give it a go? You might surprise yourself.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and would love to be able to time travel, especially if accompanied by a gorgeous vampire.

Deborah Harkness, The Book of Life (Headline, London: 2014). 9780755384778, 578 pp., hardback.

3 Comments

  1. Carol S

    I’m reading this (among others as is my naughty habit) and while enjoying I’m not relishing it as I did the previous two. I don’t find it difficult to turn to one of my other current reads when needs (ie book group dates) arrive. And I also wonder how a new reader would get on with it without the earlier introduction to the very many characters in their changing time periods. Nevertheless the main characters are marvellous as you say and it is an achievement and an intelligent one worth spending time with.
    I suppose deciding whether to reread will be the teller.
    A good review here.

  2. Not to be picky, but from someone who studied at one, and works at the other, she’s from Yale, not that other school. I count myself as another reader who definitely wouldn’t read a vampire novel, no, never, but enjoyed these (still looking forward to this third one).

    1. Audrey thanks so much for pointing this out. I’m off to edit the page right now. Glad to hear you also like these books!

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