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This Thing of Darkness


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This book was long listed for the Booker Prize this year and I have posted various enthusiastic reviews of it in a number of threads. I read this morning that the author has died of cancer at the age of 45. This news saddened me greatly, as I'd really like to be able to think that he was at home writing his next novel for me to enjoy.

 

This Thing of Darkness follows the careers of Fitzroy, captain of the Beagle and Charles Darwin, exponent of the theory of evolution, both before, during and after the famous voyage that they make together. Thompson's genius lies in comparing and contrasting the lives and values of these extraordinary and very different men and portraying their personalities against the backdrop of the times. Issues of faith, race, duty and morality are explored with subtlety and intelligence.

 

This isn't the sort of book that normally attracts my attention and were it not for the Booker nomination I probably wouldn't have read it. It is also a weighty number and in hardback requires a certain dedication when trying to read it in bed. However, it is one of my top three books of the year and lives on in my memory in a way that books rarely do. Why it wasn't on the shortlist, I'll never know. (They should make me a judge.)

 

From the obituary I read, it would seem that Harry Thompson had a full and successful life and was the sort of man who experienced success in many fields. I wish he had turned his hand to writing earlier in his career.

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It makes me feel strange to read that someone who didn't know Harry should feel such sadness at his death. For 36 hours or so now I have been trying to come to terms with the news, and have felt more conflicting emotions than I knew I was capable of. Yet the most overriding feeling is numbness, which is no feeling at all.

 

I knew Harry for almost 20 years. I worked with him - as a writer when he was my producer in radio, and alongside him on They Think It's All Over for 15 series, my baby which he did so much to bring to television from radio. For 14 years, I played for his cricket team, Captain Scott XI. And for 16 years, I played 5-a-side football with him most weeks.

 

I can't at this moment do justice to Harry, and this forum probably isn't the place to attempt to do that. He was a contradictory man, in more than one sense. The most selfish man I have known, and at the same time the most generous. A deeply flawed man, yet those flaws gave him most of his strengths. The most talked about man I knew, who courted publicity, yet who hated being talked about. No one has been able to capture Harry in words: not today's obituarists, not those who have profiled him or even fictionalised him. A friend of mine who tried to write truthfully about him ended up having an injunction put out against him, because Harry could never see himself the way others saw him.

 

This was a man who refused to be pinned down. In an age when everyone is expected to specialise, he produced and wrote television and radio, he wrote biographies, travel pieces, humour books and one novel. Mungus, what struck me most about you wrote is saying it was a shame Harry started writing so late in life. His output was huge; it was a life's work squeezed into 45 years. Biographies of Richard Ingrams, Peter Cook, Herge, The Man In The Iron Mask, as well as This Thing Of Darkness. All this while producing and writing some of the funniest TV shows of the past 15 years: Harry Enfield and Chums, Have I Got News For You, Monkey Dust, They Think It's All Over, Da Ali G Show among others. His energy was incredible; his timekeeping was appalling.

 

He had the strongest willpower of anyone I have ever known. He could persuade you that something you both saw with your own eyes hadn't happened, and you had to believe him because he believed it so completely himself. Which is why none of us who knew him, and knew how ill he was, ever believed he was really going to die. What hurt more than anything was reading a sentence which said he died after a "short" fight against lung cancer. Right up until I got the news yesterday morning, I thought the fight would be long, and that it would ultimately be successful. Because if anyone could beat it, Harry could. Harry had the amazing ability to change history the moment it happened, and it was a shock to discover this was the one moment in history he couldn't change.

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Thank you for your moving contribution, Bill. I had read an earlier post from you so was aware that you'd worked with him. I think I meant that he was late to writing fiction (and I'd forgotten about his Cook biog) as a separate thing from the TV work. I compartmentalise 'writing' too much, not being a writer myself.

 

When I finished This Thing of Darkness I went to read newspaper reviews online (as I often do after enjoying a book, but rarely before) and learned that he was ill. They all gave a sense that he was an extraordinary character and that his illness was somehow unbelievable. This is why I felt saddened to read the obituaries when these things normally pass me by. Your insights help add depth. I hope I haven't said anything inappropriate.

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Here's the next two posts from this thread, found on Google. Sadly I can't find my long eulogy about it, nor the posts from then onward :(

 

Mrs Jones

New Member

 

Join Date: Jan 2006

Posts: 5

 

Like you Mungus I would never have normally chosen this book but I'm so glad I did. It made me laugh and it made me cry. An extraordinary story told so well that I cared deeply about what happened to the characters upon the Beagle. FitzRoy and Darwin so similar in some respects and so different in others both lived their lives true to themselves and their beliefs.

I think this novel shows us what it is to be human, flaws and all.

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#5

21st February 2006, 09:14 PM

Granny weatherwax

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Join Date: Jan 2005

Posts: 152

 

I've just finished reading this and I thought it was wonderful. Likewise it is not the sort of book I would normally buy, but something made me buy it and I'm so glad I did.

It was funny, sad, poigant and I was actually shocked by the ending, just was not expecting it

 

Bill, I'm so sorry to hear of your loss, I hope it comforts you to know in writing this book your freind has left behind a beautiful legacy of which you can be proud.

May he rest in peace.

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Well, in the absence of the more recent posts on this thread, including my 'rave', here is a copy of the one that I posted on Ship of Fools. It doesn't quite say it all, but is enough for now!

 

I so loved this novel, which is the story of Captain Robert FitzRoy, the voyages he made in command of the surveying brig ' Beagle' and of his subsequent career . Charles Darwin has an important rôle in the story having been invited by FitzRoy to join the ship, ostensibly as the Beagle's 'natural philosopher', but mainly as a companion to FitzRoy himself who found that the loneliness of life aboard ship (naval etiquette forbad mingling with the junior officers) triggered bouts of deep depression, or uncontrollable mania.

 

FitzRoy was a very devout Christian, driven by a sense of duty, whose determination to Do The Right Thing brought him into conflict with his superiors, particularly in respect of the colonization of the outer edges of the Empire, and who found that his deepest beliefs were being challenged by the scientific advancements of the day. The conclusions that Darwin was reaching during his geological researches shook FitzRoy's world, and their originally strong friendship eventually foundered.

 

Darwin, on the other hand was a bit of a dilettante, unable to settle on an area of interest, or a career. He was dabbling in 'natural philosophy' while supposedly studying to take Holy Orders, and continually calling on his exasperated father for money. He continued to be financially irresponsible throughout the voyage, but his observational skills, and his intuitive leaps to previously unthinkable conclusions brought him great scientific acclaim.

 

Thompson's research has been very thorough, and he reveals FitzRoy as a true hero, badly treated by his contemporaries and by history. FitzRoy treated all men with respect and humanity, and grieved bitterly the wrongs that he saw meted out to the aboriginal peoples of S. America and New Zealand. He was loved and respected by his officers and crew, and his greatest legacies were the detailed charts he made of the complicated coastline of the furthest tip of S, America, and the mapping of weather systems, which he developed in to the production of weather forcasts for shipping, Although forcasting storms saved the lives of many seamen, and was taken up by many other nations, his own country gave them a very short trial and then abandoned them. It was only after his death, and following insistance from seamen and fishermen that they were reinstated.

 

Only in 2002 was FitzRoy honoured by having the sea area formerly called Finisterre renamed "FitzRoy" in his honour.

 

It's a weighty book, and it took me some time to read it, but I am now raving about it to all and sundry. I think all who read it will hold FitRoy in the greatest respect for his physical and moral courage, and his humanity.

 

It's also a great sea-story.

 

Go read it!!

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I think I have recovered meg's thoughts. Please see the 'When you get a chance...' thread on Announcements & Tips for tips on how to use Google to the maximum.
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#6 18th January 2007, 02:25 PM
megustaleer


I have just finished part 3, in tears.


When The Beagle sails away to leave Jemmy and Mrs Button to their lonely life




I have been enjoying the book immensely, in all its densely detailed descriptions of the terrifying expeditions around the southernmost tip of S. America. I don't think HT missed out one item from the ships' log when putting this tale together, and I am amazed at the determination and bravery of FitzRoy and his crew, and of civilians such as Darwin who put their lives in the hands of the 'matlows'.

I have been totally absorbed in the story until the last few chapters, when I have on several occasions been catapulted back into modern times.

The first time was when they reached the Falkland Islands, and a party of marines had to 'yomp' (not the word used in the book, but it's what they did!) across the island in pursuit of a raiding party from Buenos Ayres (sic)

Secondly when General Rosas justifies his extermination of the indians on the grounds that they are spreading terror in the midst of the settlers, saying

 

when one strikes at the heart of terror, there are always civilian casualties


Rosas' plans for the region:

 

if the countries that depend upon the silver trade were to form a federation...with a single currency, a single defence policy, a single economic policy, and a single law then the benefits of such co-operation would be immeasurable.


finally:

 

the general likes to surround himself with the latest comedians and entertainers...I dare say it makes him popular among the troops




I'm sure HT saw those parallels between then and the politics of the 20th/21st century, but I wonder if they slipped into his writing unbidden, or if he intended to make them so obvious.

Do they enhance or detract from the story of FitzRoy and Darwin?

Or haven't I read enough of the book yet to 'get' what it is about?
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#7 18th January 2007, 02:46 PM
Mungus


 

Originally Posted by megustaleer
I'm sure HT saw those parallels between then and the politics of the 20th/21st century, but I wonder if they slipped into his writing unbidden, or if he intended to make them so obvious.



I'm so glad you're enjoying the book after your physical struggles Meg, I was starting to worry!

As for your observations re: Rosas, I can remember having a 'nothing new under the sun' thought when reading that passage, and indeed many other passages in the book. Whether the author sought to emphasise these parallels or whether it's just a true reflection of the times, I wouldn't like to guess.

There are a number of side stories and diversions in the book (hence the size!) and I think these act to show the enormous changes is society that were taking place in that period in history. Darwin and Fitzroy are exposed to differing influences over the years, religion being maybe the key one to the story as told, and their troubled personal relationship reflects this.
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#8 28th January 2007, 12:33 PM
megustaleer

Finished!!

I have enjoyed this book sooo much, it is almost impossible to know where to start praising it.

The subject of the book, and its hero, is Robert FitzRoy, who is given the command of a surveying brig (a two masted, square rigged sailing ship) following the suicide of its previous captain. He is to sail this little matchbox back from the southernmost tip of S. America to complete the surveying and mapping of its intricate coastline.

Fitzroy is a man driven by his sense of duty, and by his determination to do the right thing in every situation. He is loved and respected by his crew because of these qualities, which is why they show such forbearance when, as ooccasionally happens he is plunged into a deep, black depression, or is taken over by a mania in which he can only see the 'rightness' of his actions and cannot be deflected.

Realising that loneliness is going to be dangerous for his mental stability on a return voyage to S, America (a captain can't fraternise with the lower officers), Fitzroy invites Charles Darwin to join the ship as its 'natural philosopher', and to provide him with companionship.

From this point the novel follows two main strands. Firstly, the continuing work of FitzRoy, and the dangers that the ship and the crew face on sea and on land. Secondly the relationship that develops between FitzRoy and Darwin on a five year voyage in unimaginably cramped conditions, facing unbelievably hard and dangerous elemental forces at sea, and on land.

Darwin is a completely different character to FitRoy, being more easily distracted by some new discovery, and liable to make intuitive leaps of inspiration when faced with some new inexplicable geological finds. The conclusions he comes to deeply offend FitzRoy, whose belief in the Genesis account of the creation is the rock on which all his understanding of the world is built.
Being unable to rely totally on his grip on his own sanity, the suggestion that he cannot rely on the Bible is deeply threatening.

FitzRoy was often at loggerheads with his superiors, and this continues to dog him after the voyage is over, and throughout the rest of his career. He spent most of his private fortune on subsidising his voyages, one way or another, and can no longer retain his station as a 'gentleman'. His most important contribution to shipping, and to our own lives was the study of meteorology, and the 'invention' of weather forcasting. Recognised, and developed as a science all over the world, it was starved of money here, and finally abandoned. It was only the support of seamen and fishermen after his death that got weather forcasting re-instated, and only in 2002 was his name honoured by having a shipping area named after him.

Darwin and Fitzroy went their separate ways. Both married and had families, and demonstrated their different characters in their domestic lives. On the few occasions that they met in later years, they ended up arguing.
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#9 29th January 2007, 03:38 PM
megustaleer


 

Originally Posted by megustaleer
I'm sure HT saw those parallels between then and the politics of the 20th/21st century, but I wonder if they slipped into his writing unbidden, or if he intended to make them so obvious.

It was intended.

There is an 'Author's Postscript' at the end of the book, where Thompson elaborates a little on some of the history, gives a brief summary of the further careers of various secondary characters, and indicates which parts of the book are from historical record and which from his own imagination. In this chapter he says

 

In inventing Rosas' self-justification, I have taken the liberty of drawing almost exclusively on the words of Tony Blair, and the various self-justifications he produced to defend his foreign policy adventures with George Bush in the Middle East and Central Asia.


 

Originally Posted by megustaleer
Do they enhance or detract from the story of FitzRoy and Darwin?


For me they didn't enhance the story, and did detract from it because they distracted me or I wouldn't have felt the need to refer to them in my earlier post, and I'm sure they would jump out at other readers who have lived through the past 5 years. The Blair effect may wear off (in this book, at least) with the passage of time.
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#10 29th January 2007, 05:26 PM
Mungus

 

Originally Posted by megustaleer
It was intended. There is an 'Author's Postscript' at the end of the book.



I'd forgotten about that, well done for spotting it early! See, I really do need to re-read...
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This is one of the most Complete books I've read.

I wouldn't say this is completely beyond my sphere of reading, I enjoy fiction about navel history, Patrick O'Brian being the major contributor. The seafaring portions of the narrative live up to the high standards of O'Brian's prose, it has a similar mix of eloquence and terror. The descriptions of the storms around the cape and in the estuary of the river plate were wonderful.

 

I used the word complete to describe this book because it covers so much. The scope of the book is huge both in it's timeline and content. Questions of religion Vs science, racism, war, global politics, socialist commentary and even a smattering of romance. This book will appeal to anyone who enjoys thinking. The story is as engaging as it is thought provoking.

 

The biggest thing I have taken away with me from this story is the idea that human behaviour doesn't change. We seem to work in cycles, in parallel with FitzRoy's observations on air currents. There aren't any new humanitarian atrocities, they've all be perpetrated before. I was disgusted at the description of how the British Empire forced itself upon "virgin" lands. The simple assumption that the white man, with his unshakeable religion, was better than the ignorant indigenous peoples of the world. It's infuriating to think that this kind of Empire Mentality still exists and festers in the form of blind racism.

 

The "Darwin" narrative is all about him trying to figure out where we came from and how we've advanced, while all of the time Mr. Thompson is showing us that over the last 150 years we haven't changed a bit. We are still a destructive, self-serving race. It's so subtle and clever, yet at the same time a depressing and sobering message.

 

All of the characters were engaging but I can't say that I liked any of them. I found the depiction of Darwin stilted and unlike-able. I admired FitzRoy for being honourable, brave and interestingly flawed. His weaknesses really rounded his character and made him live, but mostly because of my own beliefs, I just couldn't connect with his devout beliefs in God.

 

 

That's why I thought the ending was so good. In suicide he abandons religion, running the risk of never being reunited with his loved ones (as where his beliefs) and, in my opinion, giving in to Darwin's theories and the seemingly unstoppable wave of new "anti-religious" thinking. He seemed to blame himself for all of this happening by choosing Darwin as a companion. Like I said, a great ending.

 

 

In fact the most likeable characters were those of the natives and the lesser officers aboard the Beagle. I loved the "gunroom" atmosphere among the lesser officers, I think I've acquired a taste for it from my previous O'Brian reading.

 

I find it impossible to fully do this book justice. It made me think about things I would never normally have considered. The adventurous storylines entertained me. it was funny in places and heart-wrenchingly sad in parts. In fact I feel quite exhausted now that I've completed it.

 

It's a 750 page book, I hardly looked at the page numbers throughout and every turn of a page was tinged with disappointment because with it came the realisation that I was a little closer to the end. Fantastic.

 

Edit: I have my own theories but I'd be interested to hear what aspect/s of the story people think the title refers to...

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I find it impossible to fully do this book justice. It made me think about things I would never normally have considered. The adventurous storylines entertained me. it was funny in places and heart-wrenchingly sad in parts. In fact I feel quite exhausted now that I've completed it.

You have done it far greater justice than I have done. The more I like a book, and want other people to read it, the less I am able to express my thoughts in a coherant manner!

 

Edit: I have my own theories but I'd be interested to hear what aspect/s of the story people think the title refers to...

The darkest thing I saw in this tale was the heart of man*, and his ability to corrupt everything he touches, including his religon

 

(If I really have to say it: 'man' as in 'mankind', without reference to gender)

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You have done it far greater justice than I have done.
You're very kind!
The more I like a book, and want other people to read it, the less I am able to express my thoughts in a coherant manner!

Nonsense! Your comments and reviews were the main motivation behind me even picking this book up. So thank you.

 

I keep remembering some other parts of the story now I've finished reading it. I was most impressed by the description of early 19th Century, Central London. It was described with a vibrancy and flair that made me feel exactely like the natives must have, seeing it for the first time.

 

I also want to mention the discussions and arguments between FitzRoy and Darwin that create the spine of the story. Mr Thompson manages to draw the battle lines so clearly. Each side is put forward with clarity and wisdom, but the fact remains it is an argument that still rages today.

 

As for the title, I mentioned in a previous post that I had a few theories about its origin as the story progressed. First of all I thought it refered to FitzRoy's illness, how his darkside took over his person from time to time, endangering himself and all of those that served under him.

Then I progressed to thinking of the "darkness" being a metaphor for science, how furthering our knowledge destorys what has gone before it, in this case religion.

I also agree with Meg's comments on this topic.

 

It is a wonderful title. It is so apt, because there is so much within the story that it can be attached to.

 

I would love to hear other interpretations because they seem endless to me.

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Interesting question regarding the title of this book, Krey20 and one I'd barely considered! I think that like you I assumed it was a reference to Fitzroy's depression but I wonder if 'This Thing Of Darkness' is the great unknown, be it science, religion, the psyche, whatever.

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Interesting question regarding the title of this book, Krey20 and one I'd barely considered! I think that like you I assumed it was a reference to Fitzroy's depression but I wonder if 'This Thing Of Darkness' is the great unknown, be it science, religion, the psyche, whatever.
Yes, I'm beginning to think that too. I'm nearly at the end of it , unfortunately :(
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I just had a quick peek at my copy and I see that the title comes from The Tempest. I'm not at all familiar with the play, but is there anything in it that could shed a different light on the meaning of the book's title?

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Wow, great link , it added yet another facet to the titles meaning. It implies that the titles refers to the "savages" as dark or evil, as well as the soul of those that would interfere with them. There is a parallel in plot too. I must leaf through Shakespeare again soon.

 

Is this a concrete explanation? Are our observations on the title merely incidental?

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Well, I have just finished the book and wept at the ending, something I have not done for ages.

 

I can only repeat and endorse what has already been written above. The combination of learning, scholarship, history, adventure, philosophy, theology, anthropology and psychology is powerful stuff. Food for thought, the way the rigid, duty-bound Captain was the one with honest compassion for the Fuegians and who battled against orthodoxy with his weather forecasts; and the ground-breaking Darwin had less fellow feeling and more retrograde attitudes than one would have imagined.

 

I know what you mean, meg, about the better the book the more inarticulate one feels, because one's own words can't get close.

 

I'll now feel proud - and humbled - when I hear the shipping forecast mention FitzRoy!

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I've just finished this too, though I don't have much more to add to the excellent posts above. I took the title to point to FitzRoy's depression and didn't realise the other possible meanings. Good work, class!

 

I thought some of the dialogues between Darwin and Fitzroy seemed a little stilted, but that's the only thing that I didn't like.

 

And the author's postcript was a revelation. Makes me wish every author would be so honest with the way they wrote.

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I brought this yesterday, brand new for 70p off Amazon. I'm relly looking forward to it as it is one of the few books that loads of people on here seem to be raving about, last time I remember everyone talking quite so much about a book was for The Children's War which was just amazing.

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This is quoted from the 'Currently Reading' thread:

My book group read 'This Thing of Darkness' this summer, thumbs up all round. One of our number - a doctor - said it was the best book she's ever read! Not sure I'd go that far, but certainly a tour de force

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The unanimous enjoyment is almost too much! We could do with a dissenter. Any takers...?

I thought the conversations between FitzRoy and Darwin seemed forced and stilted. It jarred alongside the other writing that flowed beautifully.

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I'm about 150 pages into this, and really loving it. Without BGO, I would never have picked it up, as the naval stuff would really have put me off, but in fact it has a lot of elements that I really like in a book - interesting locations, history, and great characters. I've just skimmed the thread and I can see I have a lot more good stuff to come.

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  • Similar Content

    • By megustaleer
      This Thing Of Darkness also has its own thread in the Novels of the21st Century forum, which can be found here
    • By Adrian
      I thought the sections where Darwin and FitzRoy sat in a cabin and talked seemed stilted and forced, and they didn't fit in with the rest of the book.

      It's not a big criticism of the book (that I loved enormously) but they just didn't feel like they were edited in seamlessly.
    • By Adrian
      I'm finding FitzRoy's post-Beagle exploits just as interesting as the time he spent on the ship. I understand Thompson wanted to set the story on the Beagle and so after that time it was more Epilogue than Main Story, but I'm actually now interested in that part of NZ history.

      And the biography I picked up rates him more as the inventor of the weather forecast.
    • By Adrian
      As much as I love the man and appreciate his works, I don't think the shipping forecast area of Finisterre should have been renamed. It's too small a gesture and too "modern" for my liking.
    • By Calliope
      One thing I'm really admiring about this book is the way Harry Thompson has successfully integrated research with action. Having real people walk through the pages does a lot for the story's apparent authenticity but it's the way information about things like the working of the barometer is fed into the story without slowing the action that really raises the novel from run-of-the-mill historical sagas. It really gives you the feeling of knowing what it's like to be there in the historical moment - too many writers seem to imagine the past as some inferior version of the present, or their descriptions as an opportunity to lecture about their deep research.

      I'm trying to work out how he does this. How does a writer know how much detail to use? It's a matter of balance I suppose, maybe like cooking. The details are the herbs and spices. ( Stef Penney's The Tenderness of Wolves is another recent historical novel that got it just right.) Thompson really shows us that, as with the places his characters explore, 'the past is another country'. I'm really enjoying it.

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