Results

OK to publish
From: Catherine
Tonight's discussion is now closed, but the comments will remain on this page for a couple of days for us to ponder at leisure.
If you have any comments/questions/feedback, please do email me direct.
Thank you for your contribution, and see you soon, I hope.
OK to publish
From: Janet
Thanks Catherine.
OK to publish
From: Janet
I think that as long as the fictional characters are in keeping with the historical period then faction can work well. A book like this which contains a lot of real characters and real events is possibly read in a different way from a pure work of fiction, though these are often based in recognisable places.
OK to publish
From: Sarah
Thank you Catherine and I hope to see you all soon.
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From: Julie
Thanks catherine
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From: Chris
Thank you and goodnight everyone.
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From: Gwen
I wish I had finished the book before this evening as have loved reading all the comments . I didn’t feel it was a book I wanted to rush as it seemed to be beautifully written and I wanted to savour it.
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From: Dawn
Thank you Catherine....see you all next month!
OK to publish
From: Vivien
I'd really like to hear YOUR suggestions about how she brings our modern concerns to the story: is it perhaps by simply describing factually what happens - e.g. to the prisoners - so that we can bring our own judgments to bear?
OK to publish
From: Catherine
Well, on that note...
We've come to the end of our allotted time. It's been fascinating, not least because we've had to keep track of who's saying what, when, what with the time lag and all. Thank you for going with it. I hope you've found it interesting. Do email me and let me have your feedback.
But for our next meeting...and sadly it is unlikely we are going to be able to meet in person...the title I'd like us to read is Lost Children Archive by Valerie Luiselli and that will be on Monday 27 April at 8pm.
The discussion may be in this same format, or we may investigate something different, but I hope you'll stay in touch and get involved. Do keep reading my weekly e-newsletter for updates.
Things are changing all the time and I heard today that one of the major book wholesalers has closed down due to the current situation. I haven't been able to get confirmation from Browsers on how this affects their supply of books, but please can I encourage you to contact them first to get your copy of the book.
Thank you for being involved. Keep safe and well and I look forward to being in touch again soon.
OK to publish
From: Graham
I think that the author of an historical novel should stick closely to the essential facts and not misrepresent history.
OK to publish
From: Pip
I've got to go. Hope everyone is staying safe and well. 'See' you at the next book club
OK to publish
From: Catherine
Way back in this discussion we touched on 'Faction', the merging of fact and fiction. The author says that all the characters in New York are real people. Concerning The Great Level, there were books she could refer to about the draining of the land, but no pictures. This gave her free rein to imagine the landscape for herself. How do you feel about facts being merged with the author's imagination in books like this? If we had maps and a list of sources, how would that have coloured our response to this book as a work of fiction?
OK to publish
From: Catherine
Thank you, Viv. The author said how important an outsider is to writing fiction, because they can be the questioner and highlight issues for the reader. But how does the author bring our own concerns to the story, our own modern interpretation to the events she is presenting?
OK to publish
From: Janet
You're not alone Vivien - I found Jan more convincing. In answer to the question about the historical setting I did have trust in the author as I got the impression that she had done a lot of research. On that note it would perhaps have been good if she had listed some of her sources.
OK to publish
From: Chris
I was definitely transported to a different time and place. I don’t think I’ve read a book set in Cromwell’s time and I’ve read a lot about the history of New York and it reinforced what I already knew.
OK to publish
From: Vivien
I think it was a brilliantr idea to have Purtian England observed by an outsider - a product of a less intolerant culture. She doesn't make the mistake of making him a twenty-first century observer, but his values are akin to our nevertheless.
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From: Pip
I found the language a little laboured and inconsistent
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From: Jane
I think the author was effective in including a wide range of issues which were brought together by the threads of the draining of land and its management and the relationship between the two main characters.
OK to publish
From: Catherine
The author has said that to ensure authentic language, she read Shakespeare, Milton and Donne and if they used the words, then she felt she could use them too! What did you notice about the language?
OK to publish
From: Catherine
Can we think now about the period setting. What do you think about the atmosphere she has created? The language she has used? Do we feel it's authentic? How is it convincing, or not? How easy is it to read, to lose yourself in another time and place?
OK to publish
From: Catherine
It's so interesting how we're divided in our responses to the central characters!
OK to publish
From: Chris
I felt I could empathise with Jan and his insecurity whereas I felt the Eliza parts shallow. I felt there was more depth to Jan as a character. I really learning about the draining of the fens too.
OK to publish
From: Janet
Yes I found the migration theme interesting as both Jan and Eliza left their home countries. Possibly Eliza was deliberately not portrayed in detail until she had left her roots and moved to a New World where there were more opportunities. However I still feel that the love story was not convincing.
OK to publish
From: Julie
I didn't think it read like two books merged into one. The stories were well integrated.

OK to publish
From: Catherine
And what about this period of history? Did it intrigue? Was it familiar to you? The author is a historian primarily - did you trust her? Were there areas of the narrative you wanted better developed?
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From: Vivien
In answer to oyur question about themes, Catherine, yes, all those themes are there - which gives the novel its depth and richness. I seem to be out on a limb in having found Jan a much more interesting a character than Eliza.
OK to publish
From: Kathy
Absolutely, Catherine all of those issues eg., slaves, prisoners, were touched on and I found them extremely moving and at times harrowing.
OK to publish
From: Catherine
The author has described Eliza as a survivor and Jan as a quieter and thoughtful character. The man should have been more dynamic because he had more opportunities perhaps. Yet many of us (thougIs that anything to do with the author being female, or the readers being female. What do our male participants think? is that just Graham this evening - did you think Jan or Eliza more powerful as a character, and why?
OK to publish
From: Jane
I agree with Pip about wanting to know more about Eliza’s back story. To know that the author may write more books about the characters’ descendants perhaps explains the tantalising ending. However, it was still satisfactory for me.
OK to publish
From: Sarah
I think Jan accepted his faith while Eliza fought for her destiny and her story conintued while Jan story seemed to stagnate, hence why Eliza featured more prominently in the latter part of the book.
Maybe also the break up affected Jan more than Eliza?
OK to publish
From: Julie
There certainly could be a follow on book from the way it was ended. But if so I would like to hear more from Eliza.
OK to publish
From: Catherine
Thank you for everyone coming on board. Don't worry about the time lag!! Keep with it, if you can. All still very interesting points.
But another question...The author came to speak in Suffolk earlier this month and she clearly had many many ideas she wanted to include in this book regarding this period in history in Europe and in the New World. How has she been effective in including so many aspects? Or how do you think the novel could be improved?!
OK to publish
From: Pip
It was almost like she wrote two books and then tried to merge them together.
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From: Lisa
Sorry I think my internet on holiday. I’m a way behind you all. Enjoying reading your comments though.
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From: Dawn
Hello! Sorry, bit late to the party....I have thoroughly enjoyed this book but agree with those that have found Eliza's story is more compelling. Agree that hearing more of her thoughts on the time in the fens would have really added to the tale.
OK to publish
From: Jane
I’ve also very much enjoyed reading everyone’s comments and the fact that the book has prompted such a variety of responses. I think it is fair to describe it as a love story but it’s much more besides.
OK to publish
From: Catherine
Were there other themes in the book which you found interesting? role of men and women in society, religion and myth/supernatural, prisoners and slaves, ecology, the natural world, migration and movement, memory and loss...
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From: Vivien
I can't see the discussion!
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From: Pip
It was a love story but really only from Jan's perspective when talking about romantic love. It was a love story about his passion for engineering and taking control. Interesting that Jan allowed some 'natural' aspects in his planning at the end, realising that he wasn't totally in control.
OK to publish
From: Kathy
I too found that this book brought to mind my enjoyment of Francis Spufford and Graham Swift's books.
OK to publish
From: Catherine
Why do you think the author chose to divide the narrative in the way she did, almost as if two stories with Jan first and then Eliza? She has said she would like to continue writing about these characters descendants through subsequent centuries. In what way might that colour your response to the concluding chapters of the book?
OK to publish
From: Diane
I too like being transported to a different time and place. Also an atmospheric place.
OK to publish
From: Pip
I wanted to know more about Eliza, her part in the dam breach and her backstory.
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From: Julie
Yes I would agree that it is a love story primarily.
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From: Sarah
Jan was too insecure and spent too much time in his own head for me to engage with him. Way too much rambling for me :)
I don’t know if it was a convincing love story as I think both were more interested in the environment and land than each other.
OK to publish
From: Pip
I just found Eliza a much richer and warmer character. Jan was too verbose and his chapters were too drawn out and slow
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From: Janet
I definitely agree that a map/or maps would have been very useful.
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From: Catherine
I think we have a bit of a time delay in our responses. But please don't worry about that, just add your response to the comments as you wish! Also, do keep refreshing your page if your computer isn't doing automatically (mine doesn't always!). It's great to get this feedback even if we do have a bit of a delay!
OK to publish
From: Jane
I’m finding a very long time lag. Catherine, in answer to your question, I liked being transported to a different time and place.
OK to publish
From: Catherine
The author has described this novel as a love story. Is this how you would describe it? Is it convincing as such?
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From: Chris
I’m here and I’ve enjoyed reading all the comments
OK to publish
From: Jane
Interesting that there’s a split in that some preferred Jan and others Eliza.
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From: Catherine
And why did the author separate the two narratives as she did, giving us more of Eliza towards the end of the book?
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From: Catherine
Thank you Chris. Why were you drawn to Jan? And Pip, why do you think you found Eliza the more convincing character?
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From: Chris
I would also have liked some maps and I found Jan a character I was drawn to rather than Eliza.
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From: Catherine
My first question is - was it helpful for us to read this book at this time?
OK to publish
From: Graham
I'm here, busy reading all those wonderful comments made so far. And missing my friends Paul and Doug in the back row!
OK to publish
From: Catherine
Hello! Welcome to the online virtual book group!!

We are now ‘live’. This means that all your comments will appear in ‘real time’. (Sorry it’s going to take a while for me not to put these terms in inverted commas.)

There will be a 30 second delay before your comments appear, to be sure that we haven’t been infiltrated by any unwelcome guests, so don’t fret if your carefully worded response doesn’t appear immediately.

Please do feel free to contribute, even if it is just to say that you liked or didn’t like the book or even that you’re online with us – we’d just like to know you’re there.

Thank you so much to everyone who has already posted a comment. We may need to take a few minutes to scroll through these.

But can I suggest we press on now.

If we have a lull in our ‘live’ conversation, we can take some time to ponder the comments further down the ‘feed’ (is that the right word?). And if we don’t have a lull, we’ve got some comments to read later at leisure. We’ll keep the page available for us all to read back over the next 24 hours.

When we come to the end of our allotted hour, I will conclude the evening with a few notices, but these will also be posted on the websites and in my e-newsletter on Sunday, so if you have to leave early you won’t miss out on any important information!
OK to publish
From: Pip
I really wanted to like this book as I enjoy a good work of faction. Although it started well and I was interested in the subject it didn't live up to expectations. I found Eliza's chapters the most interesting and at the point where things were getting interesting in the New World, it ended in a most unsatisfactory way.
OK to publish
From: Lisa
Hi
Personally I found the book too wordy for my taste as I felt this slowed the story too much.
Having said that I did feel you hit a good sense of atmosphere.
OK to publish
From: Sarah
I love the way Eliza deals with trauma, she takes it on the chin and just carries on and sees it as something she has overcome to get to her destination. She was very determined to make something of herself but still aware of what was actually possible for her position as a slave and a woman.
OK to publish
From: Sarah
I don’t think the author spent enough time describing the atmosphere of the Fens and I would of liked a section from Eliza when she was in the Fens plotting to destroy the embankment! I think the author should of spend less time describing the process of reclaiming the land or less of Jana inner thoughts.
OK to publish
From: Gwen Smith
I haven’t finished the book but thank you everyone for making this possible . I am very much looking forward to 8 pm !
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From: Diane
I really enjoyed this book. I thought that merging fact with fiction, enhanced both. It might help though if you are a bit familiar with Ely and King's Lynn and the Dutch beginnings of New York. I knew very little about indentured field workers so I learnt a bit about how traumatic and exploitative that was.

I know Ely and the fenlands a little and did appreciate it from that point of view. From my perspective it was realistic about the Fens and Kings Lynn.

I was happy with the two voices and appreciated the different perspectives. However, I think Eliza came in a bit later, it would have been good to have access to her thoughts a bit earlier on but you could say that built up and was a response to what was happening.
OK to publish
From: Sarah
I enjoy the merging of fact and fiction in a story as I always end up searching for more information about the real event and I had no knowledge at all about this event in history apart from I knew Oliver Cromwell resided in Ely.
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From: Sarah
This book was just okay for me but I really enjoyed the part of the book from Eliza’s point of view, I just didn’t connect with Jan. I think at some parts the book was very wordy!!
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From: Jane
When I finished the book, I decided that I liked it very much. I found the ending satisfying with its promise of Jan and Eliza meeting again. However I did find it a book of two halves. Although I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of nature throughout, I thought the first part was occasionally a little tedious and perhaps too long but I was interested in the history of the draining of the Fens about which I knew nothing. The bleak beauty and atmosphere of the Fens were well described. I found the second part of the book far more engaging, perhaps because the voice of Eliza was more effective. I should have liked more from Eliza. I enjoy a mix of fact and fiction, particularly in historical novels, and find it brings history alive so this aspect of the book worked well for me. I also enjoyed the American parts of the book which gave me an insight into early life there. However, I do think the book would have been improved by a better balance between the voices of Jan and Eliza.
OK to publish
From: bookworm
An extremely sensory book which captured the bleakness of the Fen country as well as the anticipation and hope of living in New Amsterdam. The two principal characters, Jan/Eliza, were very 'real' people and their presence lingered with me long after reading the book. I also felt there were many references to the fragility of life which,unbeknown to us, resonate with our situation at the moment. An excellent read.
OK to publish
From: Kathy
I was really engaged by this book and really felt the atmosphere of the fens all around as I read. I would have liked the author to have expanded more on the emotional impact the loss of the way of life had on the Fenland people as the works progressed and I would have loved a map or two. Definitely recommend it.

Thank you Katherine
OK to publish
From: Alison
I loved this book. The style of writing was such that in order to appreciate it, a gentle pace was required - I think.
When we were on the fens, the description of the watery landscape and the temporary islands was wonderful. The way of life was clearly under threat and this was something that Jan had considered. I'm not sure whether he was sensitive enough to have done so, had he not met and started his relationship with Eliza. The environmental impact on the wading birds and other wildlife was also highlighted. I enjoyed the descriptions of the work that was involved in draining the land to provide deep, rich and fertile soil and had this been written in a non-fictionalized context, it would have been heavy going - at least for me.
Although the scenes set in New Amsterdam were a century before the New York of Francis Spufford's Golden Hill, to me it still had something of the same atmosphere and very much a frontier town.
Despite Eliza's obvious betrayal of Jan and his work, whereby her people could sabotage the dyke that had been built, he still loved her deeply and that it was frustrated by the fact he was unsure of her whereabouts when he was in New Amsterdam. Eliza, was the more independent of the two, emotionally. Her freedom and wealth had been hard fought and she was loath to relinquish them, given marriage to anyone would have been the inevitable result. In this way, Eliza was ahead of her time. She clearly still loved Jan and had reason to be grateful to him for teaching her to read and write - skills without which she would not have risen as she had.
However, despite all this, it is sad, almost tragic, that during the course of the book they were never reunited.
OK to publish
From: Janet Brown
I very much enjoyed the historical background and the explanation of drainage methods - I learnt a lot. The descriptions of the fens were also very atmospheric. . However, I felt that the portrayal of the love story was not so convincing and the section written as Eliza didn't have the same impact as Jan's sections.
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From: Chris Webber
I really enjoyed this very well written and researched book. I’m assuming the latter as the author is a historian. Books that follow fictional characters through their lives in various times and places are my favourite genre. I did not find the jumping back and forth difficult as the chapter headings kept me on track and made it an intriguing mystery as to how it would end. I thought I would be disappointed in the end until the book ended with an uplifting thought in the last paragraph. Especially fascinating as I learnt a lot about how the fens were drained.
May I recommend a similar book - fiction in a historical setting - New York by Edward Rutherford. It covers New York from its beginning with the ‘wild men’ the only inhabitants up to modern times. I’ve read it twice and it’s long!
OK to publish
From: Jill
Hi everyone, I enjoyed the historical context of the novel, particularly as it was a period that I knew little about. Wetted my appetite to visit the fens and Ely. I found the prose to be rich and evocative, but at times, particularly in the middle section, a little turgid and over powering. However once Eliza’s voice returned in the latter stages I found the book to be very engaging and did not want to put it down. While I would have liked more details of how the fen people lived etc, in some ways the books descriptions made the characters more elusive and mysterious. I really enjoyed the ending. I would read more of Stella Tillyard and recommend to friends, An enjoyable and satisfying read.
Many thanks Catherine.
OK to publish
From: Vivien
I won't be able to join the discussion at 8 pm - although I may be able to tune in later and see if it's still going! (Throughout the 'lockdown' we are skyping my son - on his own in a flat in Seattle - at 8 o'clock every evening.) I loved the book. The structure was elegant, the evocation of the landscapes - and cultures - beautifully and richly done. The central character was subtly and sympathetically drawn. I was drawn into these worlds - and their troubling times - throughout. My only reservation - and i'd be interested to see if anyone else felt this - was that when we came to Eliza's narrative, I found it less compelling, even though her dilemma - love or autonomy - was so convincing. Perhaps we have been reading her story more often - and better done? ('Beloved' of course, but also Andrea Levy's 'Long Song' and Barry Unwin's 'Sacred Hunger'?). On the subject of comparisons, I was reminded of Graham Swift's 'Waterland' (which this book has taken me back to) - and of Francis Spufford's 'Golden Hill (which I thought much more superficial and nowhere near as engrossing!). I must read Stella Tillyard's other novel now!
OK to publish
From: Julie
Overall I enjoyed the book, which I was looking forward to reading since I was born in Ely ( but didn't grow up there ). I also had my honeymoon there, but wished I hadn't as I found the fens dark, flat and rather ominous in bad weather we had. Therefore, I thought the author caught the atmosphere of the fens well.
All historical information was very interesting and worked well within the story, although a bit too much drainage information for me!
I enjoyed the latter half of the novel best, especially Eliza's story. At the end I felt Jan had forgiven Eliza, but Eliza couldn't forgive herself. What did everyone else think re guilt?
OK to publish
From: Graham
My brief comment is that I very much enjoyed reading this book. I thought it very well written with lovely descriptions of places, characters and their thoughts, and I like to learn a bit of history through fiction, provided of course that the history is accurate.
OK to publish
From: Kathy Warden
I had been looking forward to this book as I enjoyed "Aristocrats" when it came out. I enjoyed her use of an historical setting which I felt was reasonably accurate and I learned things but felt that it was too overwhelming, interfering with the impact of the story, making it a less successful novel. This was partly a result of the structure, where Eliza's own account was left to part 5 of 6, and Jan carried the larger part of the weight of the narrative in his account. Eliza's route to success was a bit hard to swallow, in spite of her character, intelligence and shrewdness.
I thought the atmosphere of the Fens was well conveyed, especially the sabotage and breach of the new river/ cut which raised the tension enormously. Jan and the reader got an understanding of the situation and helped him to articulate views about issues of current concern - integration of nature and society and the impact of actions we have taken.
As regards trauma, the two main characters coped by suppressing it and being unable or unwilling to discuss it - though they did not have any obvious confidants. Others, such as Renswyck turned to drink.
The lack of consideration for those likely to be affected as a result of grand schemes still happens today - witness the number of objections which are raised to such schemes eg Coul Links, Sizewell C. Now we are horrified by the lack of human rights and the awful treatment of people such as the Irish prisoners and the fen people - the cruelty and transportation, selling them for labour/ almost slavery. Again the human traffickers of today have no thought of the immorality of their behaviour. Jan's ideas and feelings seem to be moving towards a more modern approach - the appreciation of a society in tune with its environment, his belief in kindness and a rational understanding of what happened eg the Roman road and the urn burials. He seems to be turned away from religion by the extreme positions of the times in which he lived - eg boy with badge/pendant of Mary. Eliza is aware of the importance, particularly for women of getting land and wealth if they wish to have freedom - a prototype feminist! She shares her community's attitude to spirits and accepts what she perceives to be such, though the rational explanation would probably be marsh gas/ comets/ shooting stars.
OK to publish
From: Catherine
Here are some questions for you to consider:

- how do you view writing which merges fact with fiction in this context?

- is the atmosphere of the Fens satisfactorily presented in the novel?

- how is trauma covered in the reactions of characters in this book?

- how much do we view these historical events through our modern sensibility?

- what do you think about how religion and the supernatural is presented in this book?

- how effective are the two voices of male/female, Jan/Eliza? and the different time periods and locations?