Reviewed by Adèle Geras
Lamentation is the sixth novel in a series which began in 2003 with Dissolution and which has continued through Dark Fire, Sovereign, Revelation, and Heartstone. As a series, it follows Matthew Shardlake, who is a hunchbacked lawyer, initially working for Thomas Cromwell (yes, him again! But he’s not a hero in these books…) and later for Catherine Parr.
These books are detective stories. There is a real divide between novels which are considered Literary (and prize worthy) and those called Popular (i.e. crime, chick lit, romance etc.), which are definitely looked down upon by prize committees. For anyone who enjoys a good historical novel with added crime/detection, the Shardlake stories are ideal. I do recommend them most strongly, and by rights you ought to start at the beginning of the series, but Lamentation can easily be read as a free – standing novel. You can then go back to the others, from Dissolution onwards. This latest book marks a step change in the status of a writer who has always shied away from publicity.
C.J.Sansom used to be a lawyer himself. He is passionately against Scottish Independence, and writes at great length about it in the afterword to his counterfactual, non-Shardlake novel, Dominion, which is set in much more modern times and which is also excellent. In Lamentation, there’s a long passage at the back of the book explaining the historical background in a very clear way for those who are not intimate with the religious and political to-ings and fro-ings of the Tudor court.
When Lamentation took the main review slot in the Sunday Times and when Peter Kemp himself (their chief literary reviewer) declared that this book could give Hilary Mantel a good run for her money, C.J.Sansom found himself both popular and praised by the literary establishment. The book has been on the bestseller lists since its publication. I was sent a most beautiful physical copy by the publisher, for review purposes, but I also bought it for my Kindle because it’s impossible to fit such a huge volume (900 pages or so) into a handbag.
Why should you read Lamentation? Quite simply because it’s stunning in its scope, its intelligence and its humanity. It starts with the most appalling scene I’ve read for many years: a detailed description of the burning of a Radical Protestant woman called Anne Askew. Shardlake has been sent by his masters to observe this and it is horrendous. You need a strong stomach to get through it, and yet it is impossible to skip a single word. It is brilliantly done and it sucks you into a time and a world when heresy was a terrible crime to be terribly punished, and when the English translation of the Bible was a dangerous book to have in your possession.
Very soon, Shardlake is summoned to the Palace. Henry VIII is dying and Catherine Parr has written a pamphlet called ‘Lamentation of a Sinner.’ This has gone missing and if it’s found by the wrong people, Henry might decide Catherine is a heretic and she will suffer the fate we have already seen described altogether too vividly. Shardlake has had dealings with Catherine Parr before and you could say he loves her. He’s engaged to find the missing pamphlet before someone else does and before Henry gets to hear about it…
Alongside this story, there are three other main plot strands. Shardlake is the lawyer for a woman who is at odds with her brother over their inheritance. Also, Henry’s state of health is revealed…he is near death.
In addition, printers and those who work with them are being killed in London. I will not reveal any further details of the plot, but the strands come together and interlock neatly and surprisingly. Lamentation has the most amazing last sentence…please do not peek, but it does allow us to hope for wonderful opportunities opening up for Shardlake.
So why is this book (and its predecessors) different from other outpourings of a Tudor nature, both crime and non-crime? There are two reasons.
The first is the character of Matthew Shardlake. He’s a wonderful creation. We grow to love him and to feel for him. He is disabled but does not let that stop him from doing anything. He is a man we come to trust and when he’s disappointed (in love or in work) we feel sad for him. We like his friends, especially Jack, his trusty sidekick and Jack’s wife Tamsin, and we worry about every single thing that happens to them, too. We take his side in disputes with other lawyers and statesmen of varying eccentricity and wickedness and we follow his clear vision of a situation at court which keeps twisting and turning and changing and which could be hard to fathom without Matthew’s guidance. We are rooting for him. We admire him and his most loveable quality is his fierce intelligence and sense of morality and justice. He is also a very romantic man and perhaps one day he will find true love. He’s come close a couple of times, and I live in hope.
The second reason I cherish these books is because they create for the reader a whole universe which starts as strange and different, but which quickly becomes as familiar as our own. Like Hilary Mantel, Sansom demystifies Tudor life. We see it and smell it and imagine it fully. We know what the clothes are like, and the buildings, and the food and we become acquainted with every corner of Shardlake’s house. We get to know his servants and his colleagues and also his horrible enemies. The books are written plainly but beautifully. They are not overburdened with long descriptions and the pace is that of a thriller and not a literary novel. CJ Sansom never shows off for the sake of it, but makes sure that we have all the necessary information at any given moment. He’s one of the best writers around at the moment and it pleases me enormously that everyone else now seems to agree with me. I hope this review will persuade many readers of Shiny New Books to get to know this writer for themselves.
Adèle Geras blogs at The History Girls
C.J. Sansom, Lamentation (Mantle, London, 2014). 978-0230744196, 650 pp., hardback.