Sunday, April 01, 2007

Sylvia by Bryce Courtenay

Sylvia is the story of the Children's Crusade, which occurred in the year 1212. It is perhaps the strangest true event to have taken place in European history. I enjoyed the digging that uncovered it - buried in a dark corner of times long out of mind. It is also a story of how, throughout some of the darkest medieval times, the redeeming power and strength of a young woman's love and intelligence prevail over poverty, brutality and bigotry. I trust you will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed taking the few scattered bones of medieval Latin and Arabic texts and recreating from them this story of Sylvia: a remarkable, talented and eccentric young woman.

Bryce Courtenay

Bryce Courtenay is one of the most popular Australian authors, and has had some international success as well. He is actually a South African but he came to live here in Australia in the 1950's so we claim him as our own, as we do others like Russell Crowe (although why I will never understand!).

In the past I have read and enjoyed The Power of One (which was made into a Hollywood movie) and Tandia, but I have struggled to get into other books by him, especially his Australian Trilogy (The Potato Factory, Tommo and Hawk and Solomon's Song), despite the fact that the subject matter (Australian colonisation) is one that I generally love to read about.

This book is being advertised here as the story of the ill fated Children's Crusade, and whilst the crusade definitely is one of the focuses of the book, the crusade itself didn't actually get started until two thirds of the way through the book. For me, the story was really about Sylvia, and chronicled her path to involvement in the crusade.

The main focus of the book to my mind is also a study of religion and superstition within the early 1200's and also has incorporated in some fables, most especially that of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Sylvia herself is a mass of contradictions. She is born a peasant, at a time when there really is no way to change your station in life. Born to a drunkard who thinks he can do anything he likes because he has been forgiven his sins by going on crusade, and an industrious woman, Sylvia is left to look after herself after her mother dies whilst she is still young. She has the voice of an angel, is a talented mimic of both people and birds. She suffers terrible abuse at the hands of her depraved father, and is then banished by the people of her town, and so she starts the journey of her life.

Along the journey, she meets up with Reinhardt, a rat catcher with a talent for charming everyone he meets, and a talented flautist. As they head for Cologne, they start a double act - Sylvia sings, Reinhart plays the flute and together they put on a show that brings them enough money and food to be able to survive on the journey.

After arriving in Cologne Sylvia causes quite the scene when she is involved in several "miracles", all of which Sylvia can explain, but in a time of great religious restrictions, once the Church says that a miracle has occurred then it is very difficult to change that perception. Coincidence and "miracles" continue and Sylvia becomes known as the Petticoat Angel.

As a character, Sylvia becomes all things to all people. To the people of Cologne she is the girl who feeds the homeless children in the morning, but in the evening she is friends with the girls in the whorehouse, learning from them all the theory of the pleasures that she can ready for the day that she has the chance to "know" a man. And yet, despite this knowledge and this background she ends up as a nun (but not before she gets to use her knowledge just once!), and then as one of the leaders of the ill-fated Children's Crusade, as well as being able to play chess like a master and how to speak at least 4 languages.

Her friends come from all walks - the young widow who teaches her the way to pleasure herself, but also gets her ready for what her forthcoming transition to womanhood will be like, numerous priests, the Jewish couple who manage her career and who give her a sense of family despite the fact that at that stage in history the Jewish were considered to be the lowest of the low.

Earlier, I wrote that Sylvia becomes all things to all people, and to be honest in a way that is one of the weaknesses of the book in some ways. There are a number of times where she is nearly condemned as a demon but she is saved by the fact that she has a birthmark on her back in the shape of a fish and therefore as soon as people see that it is confirmed as another sign of her special blessing from God. The books itself is quite graphic in terms of some of the sexuality and also some of the torture scenes.

Having said that, for the most part the story is an engrossing one, and moves along at breakneck pace. The tragic events of the crusades themselves are perhaps a little rushed towards the end, but do form the crucial part of the climax of the novel.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I did enjoy this read. Given my previous experiences with Courtenay I wasn't really expecting it. Who knows, I might even give some of his other books a go!

Rating 4/5


  1. I've read a few of Courtney's. Like you I enjoyed The Power of One, though was less enamoured of the others. This sounds interesting though.

  2. This sounds very interesting to me. You always have books that I have not heard of. :)

  3. It's not deliberate..I promise!! LOL!!

  4. I love Bryce Courtney and have recently bought a whole bunch of his books in hardcover. Power of One was one of my first reviews on my blog! I will be reading Potato Factory series



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