“I could work as a peasant in a field and live in a small hut built into the side of the mountain. I could hunt my own food, write a book of my life, but I would never see my children or my sister again. I don’t care about clothes and jewels and castles but I would miss my books.”
After generations of fighting amongst the ruling families of 11th century Occitania, the marriage of Almodis, daughter of the Count of La Marche, to Hugh of Lusignan is intended to bring peace and harmony to the region. Youg Almodis, raised by her grandfather among troubadours, trobairitz (female troubadours, imagine that, books and poetry, of course expects much more, especially that her betrothed is handsome, young an amiable. Unfortunately he is also overly religious, almost to the point of complete zealotry. He would be a great monk. Instead, he has to produce heirs with his inexperienced but far more practical bride. As you can imagine the union does’t work; that’s why, after the birth of twin boys and a daughter (don’t even ask me how it was possible at all, you must find out on your own), their marriage is repudiated. Almodis is still resolved to create her own dynasty. She marries for the second time, choosing a far more important and more powerful man, Pons the Count of Toulouse.
Pons is old, ugly and lascivious. His young wife suffers greatly from his attentions but, as an ambitious princess, she gives him several children. When that grisly task is over she doesn’t want to even look at Pons any longer. It makes the Count very angry. He wants to imprison Almodis in a covent ( or rather literally brick her in an anchorite cell there so she knows who rules the roost). She barely escapes and marries for the third time. Her third husband, Ramon of Barcelona, seems to have it all (finally you might add): he is handsome, he’s been in love with Almodis for ages and he has political ambitions well-suited for such a lady. However, his grandmother Dowager Countess of Barcelona is against that marriage as, in her opinion, a marriage of inclination is strongly condemned in Catalonia. Will Almodis finally find her place and happiness she deserves?
What I liked:
The story of Almodis was written with a detailed care concerning history and our knowledge of that era. The main heroine was a woman who would deserve more than one novel. She was the ‘peaceweaver’ but also a passionate, intelligent woman who had to fight for her right to be happy, a living proof that life of a princess could be as difficult (if not much more difficult) than a life of a simple peasant woman. I really appreciated the fact that the author didn’t condone that simple truth, showing even in the very first scene how ugly things could turn out if a princess had forgotten herself.
After all her life was full of interesting ups and downs; what’s more, she was the mother of Raymond of Toulouse, a famous crusader and a great lord. The author informs us that both Martin Aurell (1995) and Jacques Le Goff (1980) have suggested that Almodis was the canvas for the Roman of Melusine, which was associated with the castle of Lusignan (check out that Melusine if you haven’t heard about her yet!) .
What I didn’t like:
The narration is divided into several points of view and I found it a bit misleading, sometimes really awkward, especially that all the narrative voices of those different people seemed to be very similar to the voice of Almodis herself…they were simply not distinguishable enough to add to the story. I would rather the whole novel was written in the first person.
My other reservation concerns the plot. It isn’t one smooth continuum of a narration but it seems to consist of episodes. Things tend to be told, not shown and overall the whole pacing is rather surprising, with events running too quickly (or at least such was my impression) - in one chapter Almodis is married, in the second she already has three children with Hugh, then they annul their marriage, she is married to Pons, bear him children…a real whirlwind! It is closer to a chronicle than a novel.
I know basically she had five babies in three years, poor woman, with more to come, but it really sounded a bit like she just jumped from one marriage to the next, spouting children all along, without thinking or pondering over her situation.
Finally I found such an exchange in the text:
“‘We can’t push her to it, Dia, she’d only resist,’ I say, when she’s gone out riding. ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”
When I read it I gasped. Oh really? So it is, according to the author, a proverb which was known in the 11th century Occitania? Well, I found a different etymology of that one: according to this site http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/you-can-lead-a-horse-to-water.html
[This saying] was recorded as early as 1175 in Old English Homilies:
Hwa is thet mei thet hors wettrien the him self nule drinken
[who can give water to the horse that will not drink of its own accord?] and is considered the oldest English proverb (emphasis mine).
The narrative glitches spoiled this book for me a bit but if I find another novel about Almodis I will read it for sure! She was one hell of a princess!