March 23, 2012
Tides of War - Stella Tillyard
The long list for the 2012 Orange Prize is a little bit of a mixed mystery bag for me. The list has made me feel as though I am on the far edges of the literary world ( being Australian will do that to you!) as I had only read three of the books when the list was announced, Gillespie and I, Half Blood Blues and State of Wonder and there were quite a few on the list that I had never even heard of. This usually generates some excitement - all of these new books and authors to experience! But for some reason (and I have read others saying similar things) this particular long list just doesn't seem to be exciting me all that much - maybe it is a spark to jump out of my reading comfort zone and try something new and different...
Tides of War was chosen as my first read only because it was readily available at my local library - and this book has already made me look at the long list differently. Tides of War is not usually a book I would have been drawn to so without the prompting of the Orange Prize judges I would have missed out on a reading gem.
Tides of War is set in what I always refer to as "Jane Austen time" - the early 1800's in Britain and also Spain where the Duke of Wellington's troops are fighting Napoleon in the Peninsula War. The book contains a number of key characters - each one has their own devoted story line and inner world as well as having various connections to and relationships with other characters. This large number of characters could have led to quite a convoluted and confusing structure but I felt each character was written so well and so distinctly that is was easy and enjoyable to follow them all.
The book begins with introducing Harriet, a young woman newly married to James - a soldier in the British Army about to be sent to Spain to join the fighting. From these two characters others are introduced, the Duke of Wellington and his wife Kitty are extremely interesting - given that they are actual historical figures and not creations of the author's imagination. The combination of real and fictional characters is another one of the strengths of this story - it could have felt so contrived but I was caught up in the story and the historical detail and could not really see any gaps between the two. The impact of war on both the men who are directly involved and the people who remain at home was conveyed extremely well. The changes that can occur within individuals and relationships because of war, trauma and separation was a strong theme and the scenes containing Harriet and James certainly brought this home.
I found this book to be engaging, entertaining, informative and rich in historical detail - and it has restored my sense of excitement in the 2012 Orange Prize long list!