Friday, October 29, 2010

Lady of Hay by Barbara Erskine

With a story as mesmerizing as it is chilling, Lady of Hay explores how Jo, a journalist investigating hypnotic regression, plunges into the life of Matilda, Lady of Hay-who lived eight hundred years earlier. As she learns of Matilda's unhappy marriage, her troubled love for Richard de Clare, and the brutal treatment she received from King John, it seems that Jo's past and present are hopelessly entwined. Centuries later, a story of secret passion and unspeakable treachery is about to begin again-and she has no choice but to brave both lives if she wants to shake the iron grip of history.

Some times you start hearing things about an author and you think that you might like to read them. And then you hear more and upgrade to that opinion to definitely would like to read them. A bit later and you know that you HAVE to read them, and you fully expect that you are going to love reading their work.

Barbara Erskine is one of those authors for me. Over the years I have heard a few things about her books, this book in particular, and so when I was offered an ARC from Sourcebooks I jumped at the opportunity. Erskine's books contain so much that I love to read - historical fiction, time travel, a few spooky/gothic elements. The anticipation was huge. And normally when I get this vibe I am right.

But I was wrong this time, because I didn't love it at all, and I really struggled to read it.

The story opens with student Jo Clifford being hypnotised with a view to hypnotic regression. In the room is Sam Franklyn. Jo turns out to be a very good subject - too good in fact, and in the end the hypnotists agree that she should never be hypnotised again because she was just too susceptible to past life regression. So they tell her that the hypnotism didn't work and send her on her way.

Fast forward 15 years. Jo is now a hard hitting investigative journalist, who has been dating Sam's brother Nick for a while now. It is however a very on and off relationship and when the book opens it is off - for the most part anyway. Jo is writing an investigative article about hypnotism, and agrees to undertake hypnosis. Whilst under she starts manifesting the life of Matilda de Braose, a woman who lived in the 1200s, not realising that the turbulent love life of Matilda is being played out to the inevitable ending here in modern times.

What follows is at times interesting as Jo travels around England going to various sites that were important to Matilda, and each time using regression, sometimes accidental, to see more of Matilda's life, some times good, and some times not.

Generally when I read this kind of time slip novel I have a preference for the past life, and while that is true for this book it is only marginal. The fact of the matter, I didn't really like the people that filled either story. Then again, I haven't often heard or read much positive about King John I, so that wasn't necessarily unexpected, and Matilda was pretty much treated as you might expect a medieval woman to be. So whilst I didn't like the historical characters, they didn't exactly behave in ways that were unexpected. Historically, the details didn't feel too bad in terms of accuracy, but there were some relationships (for example, between Matilda and King John I) that were presented in a way that was fictional, and acknowledged as such in the authors notes, but if the reader was completely unfamiliar with this time they may come away with the wrong idea.

I didn't really expect the modern characters to be all pretty much unlikeable though. I am not sure if it was a reflection of the fact that the book was originally written in 1985 and maybe shows the different values of a different time (more the 'greed is good' world), but all the characters seem to be well off, self important, violent, jealous, casual drug users, and quite free in their sexual relationships.

I also felt that the motivations of one of the characters wasn't fully explained, especially seeing as the pretext seemed to be that he was inherently evil, but apparently no one saw it before the events of the book.

So I guess it remains to be seen if it is just this Barbara Erskine novel which I really didn't enjoy that much. I do have another one of her novels here. Not sure when I am going to read it though. I still kind of get the impression that I should like Barbara Erskine's novels, but this definitely wasn't a good one for me to start with.

Rating 3/5


  1. I've had this one on my TBR pile for a long time, and I've heard several good and bad things about it. The one good thing though is that from the reviews I've read, this is often times Erskine's least favorite novel. I've also felt like she would be an author I'd enjoy but I think I'll definitely start with a different book. Thanks for the review!

  2. I know how you feel. I love this book, but I tried Outlander recently, struggled with it and finally gave up. It's frustrating when a book everyone else loved disappoints.

    I agree the 1980s part is very dated, especially in Jo's attitude to the men in her life (in fact I think it's dated even for then actually). It doesn't bother me though which may well be because I first read this as a teen when I was far less critical. If I was reading it for the first time now, in my mid-30s, I think my reaction would be different.

    Re John and Matilda, he had such a grudge against her that considering his reputation for sexual harassment, I have wondered if she didn't turn him down at one point! There's no mention of it in the records though. I always think of Matilda as a red-haired beauty thanks to this book although others including EC describe her rather differently!

  3. I too have heard lukewarm reviews about this one; thanks for the honest review.

  4. I had not heard of this author or book, and after reading your synopsis, I thought it sounded intriguing. I also really like historical fiction and time travel, but it doesn't sound like this was the most successful blend of these things. It's too bad though, because there are not many books out there that fit this description. I am leaning towards avoiding this book, but it's a little difficult, because with a premise like that, I really want a reason to like it! Thanks for your honest thoughts on this one.

  5. Aw that sucks Marg! I totally understand your reasons for wanting to read this, because I felt the same way. Then I started reading some of the reviews, and changed my mind. Some books can be reissued and maybe this is one of them that shouldn't. I still want to check Erskine out though.
    Thanks for the honesty.

  6. Now this is a blast from the past. I actually read Lady Of Hay in the eighties, and like you, expected to love it but was sobered by dislikeable characters. I tried a few more of Erskine's books, but found them very similar and, if memory serves, more than a bit depressing. You and Miss Moppet have made me curious about what my reaction would be today. I think I may dust off one or two and browse through a few pages.

  7. Danielle, I think I am going to try her latest book and see how I get on with that one. It may just be that she is not an author for me!

    Jenny, I know of lots of people who rate Barbara Erskine as one of the favourite authors, so there is probably merit in having the book reissued.

    Zibilee, I love books where there are the two story lines that are crossing over for some reason, like time travel, so that's part of the reason that I anticipated this one a lot. Have you read Susanna Kearsley? Love her books.

    Thanks for stopping by Audra!

    It's interesting re the description of Matilda Miss Moppet. I kept on trying to think back to the descriptions we had of her in SKPs books and I was sure that she wasn't portrayed as being all that attractive.

    Sunnysmileqt, I wonder what the favourite is then?

  8. I was so tempted by this one from Sourcebooks as well, but I've been cutting way down on review copies lately so I passed on it. Now I think maybe it was a wise idea. I like time slip books, but the period also didn't appeal to me as much as other books. John is not one of the more likable characters from history--at least he wasn't portrayed very sympathetically in Elizabeth Chadwick's books. Still, I wouldn't mind trying Barbara Erskine at some point.

  9. It would be a very brave author who tried to portray John very sympathetically! I don't think I have seen anyone attempt it yet.

  10. I know what you mean, it sounds like just the sort of thing you'd like if you like, say, Susanna Kearsley. In fact, both Kearsley and Erskine were recommended to me as authors who were a bit like Barbara Michaels. Kearsley was a good rec, Erskine not so much.

    I did read a couple of her books that I liked ok, though. House of Echoes and Midnight is a Lonely Place are not bad, although they're long and a bit repetitive. I tried to read Lady of Hay after those, and couldn't really get into it.

  11. I read Lady of Hay many many years ago, probably when it hadn't been out very long. From memory, I felt at the time that it was a book that would date very quickly.

    Of Barbara Erskine's other books, Midnight is a Lonely Place is by far my favorite. Her most recent novels are all quite similar. Her new novel, River of Destiny is due out on 5th July 2012, will be intereseting to see if her writing has developed or if the story will be in the same formula.

    1. Lady Domino, thanks for stopping by.

      I haven't yet been brave enough to give Hay another shot. Maybe I should try to read the new one when it comes out!