I've read several works of historical fiction in the past - Philippa Gregory's The Red Queen and The White Queen, Nancy Bilyeau's The Crown, Anne O' Brien's Devil's Consort to name but a few - but when I started reading Spirit of Lost Angels, it immediately stood out from the rest. Firstly because it deals with the history of France whereas all of the aforementioned titles deal with English history and secondly - and for me most importantly - because it follows the life a commoner, rather than a member of the royal family.
The book begins in 1768, in a small idyllic village in rural France called Lucie-sur-Vionne. Well, it would be idyllic if the lowly peasants didn't have to suffer such hardships, both of the human and natural kind. Harsh weather conditions destroying the harvests that are essential for their survival, crippling taxes and the local nobles with a total disregard for the life and well-being of the commoners are all bad enough, but destiny or God or sheer bad luck seem to have it in for Victoire Charpentier's family. First her little brother and sister are killed in a tragic accident that destroys their family cottage, then her father is run down by a noble's coach and killed. Her mother, the village midwife and healer, unable to deal with such tragedy, turns her back on her faith in God and becomes easy prey for the village rumour-mongerers who have her executed as a witch.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Victoire sets off for a new life in Paris as a domestic servant. Her life is far from easy and she witnesses a great deal more tragedy and injustice in the streets of the capital, experiencing the most horrific hardships imaginable herself, but ultimately she rises above her peasant roots, forging herself a remarkable new life against all the odds.
The book gives a heart-rending and fascinating account of life in France for ordinary people at the time of the revolution. While it is a fictional account, various historical events and famous people are depicted which makes it even more interesting. I must admit, I spent the whole time I was reading the book looking out for the infamous "Let them eat cake" comment, but I was slightly puzzled to see it didn't even get a mention. Intrigued, I had a quick look online, to check that I had got my facts straight, and it turns out that (according to Wikipedia at any rate) this comment has been wrongly attributed to Marie Antoinette for decades.
But even putting the historical aspect aside, the thing that makes Spirit of Lost Angels such a cracking read is the fabulous storytelling that really depicts the difficulties and obstacles that the lowest ranks of people, and in particular women, had to overcome simply to survive.
I was very pleased to learn that there will be a sequel, featuring the same village of Lucie-sur-Vionne at another historical turning-point, this time during the Nazi Occupation of World War 2. The central character of this second tome, entitled Where The Wolfsangel Treads, is rebellious farm-girl Celeste Charpentier, presumably a descendant of Victoire Charpentier from the first book. I'll definitely be looking out for it.
star rating : 4.5/5
RRP : £7.99
- Paperback: 378 pages
- Publisher: Triskele Books (2 May 2012)
- ISBN-10: 2954168102
- ISBN-13: 978-2954168104
- Product Dimensions: 19.8 x 13.2 x 3 cm
Disclosure : I received a review copy of the book.
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