The Swan Diptych
Last review before Christmas, and last review of the year: The Swan Diptych by Ian Thomson.
I’ll begin by pointing out that when I started to read the book I had absolutely no idea what to expect, since I knew nothing about it. I believed it to be a work of Historical Fiction. Beyond that: nothing.
And by the time I was a third of the way through it, I was floundering, wondering how on earth I could categorise or pigeon hole the book. It is in the main part historical fiction, but there are heavy elements of fantasy in places, especially in the first of the two stories, while there is a strong undercurrent of crime novel, especially in the second.
The first of the two stories, which takes place in 14th century Lincoln, tells the tale of a Royal visit that goes somewhat awry due to the mental derangements of the cathedral’s dean and the inadvertent pooping of a swan. The story is largely HistFic, but includes the point of view of the swans, who speak at times, lending the fantasy element to the tale. That being said, that element does not detract from the feel of the story and I finished it with a smile on my face, brought about by a gentle, clever humour and a well-written tale. This story is, however, quite short. Perhaps only 1/4 of the whole book.
The rest of the novel is taken up by the second story, though this one in truth feels more like three tales cobbled together into one. It begins as a 16th century murder mystery in a Cambridge college and sets itself up as a proper whodunnit. It was atmospheric and rich and I was just getting into it when it was resolved, less than halfway through the book! The story then shifted to telling the backstory of the murderer in more detail than the story that spawned it, which felt a little odd, and yet it was in itself an excellent story. Then, when that one was over, we leapt forward a generation to another Royal visit, in the time of Elizabeth I, when young students from the first part are now the old masters. Here we are treated to a potted history of the college in the form of a document for the Queen. In all honesty, at three quarters of the way through the book, the second tale felt so disjointed and I couldn’t see where the story was really going. At that point I was preparing to allocate three stars to the book. Then, in the final hour, that last part of the second story threw us the point and the twist that made it make sense.
Overall, while parts of the book were for me a little disjointed, the stories were good and extremely well told. Thomson is apparently an English professor at Lincoln, and his skill with the language shows in his writing. It is graceful and flowing and elegant. And for me, hw stands out in his ability to use archaic language and old-fashioned words and yet fit them seamlessly into the text so that even an uninformed reader can divine the meaning of words he might not know from the context alone. I love, for example, the word ‘flummery’. It made my day reading it.
The Swan Diptych is an engaging read and for any minor difficulties I found with the story structure, full of dark humour, gorgeous language, vivid descriptive and gripping scenes. It will make an excellent few hours’ read for anyone, especially those with an interest in the medieval through Tudor eras, those with an interest in collegiate or ecclesiastical matters, or just those who love a good tale.