Saturday, 7 October 2017

Review - The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower

You could call this the original 'stitch n bitch' story, since it is a tale woven (sorry, couldn't help myself) around the making of the Bayeux Tapestry. But actually, this book is so much more than the story of the sewing of the famous embroidery, and it seems to have left readers somewhat divided. As it's nearly the anniversary of the battle, it seemed timely to revisit this book.

Odo rallies William's troops during the battle in 1066

It begins on the battlefield, where Odo, brother of the conqueror, is introduced. Odo is a bishop and it is he who will commission the embroidery. This brings him into contact with Gytha, an Englishwoman. The chapter where she is introduced was more powerful, in my opinion. I've read about the battle itself many times, but what is less often written about is the immediate aftermath; the destruction of the world as the English knew it. Those early scenes of panic, confusion and fear are realistically drawn.
"Rape. That's what they all believe, the sullen crowd gathered before Winchester's West Gate, in the square where the tax man usually collect the duty on beasts brought into the city for market. It's clear from their faces, fear mixed with impotence and embarrassment, and the round eyed children, clinging to their mothers' skirts, who don't understand but just want to look at the soldiers."
A little boy darts out of the crowd, dazzled by the ornaments on the bishop's harness, and is trampled. The soldiers panic, one runs the grieving mother through with his lance. There is horror on the streets of England's capital. In this scene, Gytha first lays eyes on Bishop Odo. 

I'm giving no secrets away when I say that Gytha and Odo fall in love, but theirs is no straight-forward story, and I'll say no more about that, for it would spoil the enjoyment for anyone new to this book. Bower takes a scene from the tapestry (show below) in which an unknown woman, Ælfgyva, appears with a 'certain cleric' and comes up with an interesting reason for the inclusion of the scene.

Ubi unus clericus et Ælfgyva

This is an almost completely fictional tale, and I don't mind that. If I'm told at the outset that a book is a work of fiction, I'm quite happy to judge it as such. The setting is authentic and Bower has clearly done her research. If you want to know why this book has divided readers, look no further than the reviews on a well-known online retailer - the main concerns are the use of the third person present tense, and the lack of narrative structure.

It is a clever book. I read it many years ago and I don't recall the use of the present tense bothering me, particularly. Sometimes it is just a bit too clever, but there are many passages where the writing, and the insight, are sublime.

At one point, Gytha lies awake, unable to sleep as the wind picks up, remembering how the sound of her father checking the salt pans and barrels in the yard on stormy nights used to be comforting. That passage resonated with me; don't we all sometimes wish we were young again, with grown-ups watching out for us - why should eleventh-century folk be any different in that regard?
"When Odo is with her, she loves stormy nights, secure in his arms, curtained and cosseted. Even when he gets up, to check for broken shutters and fallen branches or calm his horses, the feeling of safety stays with her. Her father used to do the same; several times a night on rough nights she would hear...her parents whispering together, clothes rustling  and the creak of hinges as he went out ..." 
I found the book challenged me, because I am anti-Norman, and could not understand why on earth Gytha would become so enamoured of Odo. It dared me to alter my perception and by the end, I had begun to understand, a little, at least, the attraction between the two of them.

Reviewers have expressed surprise at the portrayal of Archbishop Lanfranc, but I had no difficulty in believing in him as a villain - probably my anti-Norman bias again - even though he perhaps strays onto the pantomime stage from time to time.

This is not an easy read; the flashbacks sneak up on you so you have to concentrate. But it is a brave book, a strong book, and quite different from a lot of historical fiction. The detail about how the 'tapestry' was constructed is fascinating, and, I'm sure, accurately portrayed.

As for the suppositions, well, Bower claims artistic licence, and why not? As with so many other periods of history, with no-one to ask, we can only wonder, 'what if'...

It is a 'Marmite' kind of book, I suspect. But if you are interested in this period of history, give it a try. Even if you don't find that you love it, I think you will admire the author's accomplished way with words, and the different approach to novel writing. You will be immersed in period detail, and you will emerge enriched.

[A word of warning - the language in this book is often x-rated and at times very explicit.] 


  1. I quite enjoyed the story despite the anachronisms and the feeling that you weren't in the right historical setting, however the names annoyed me most and i think contributed to that feeling of being in the wrong era. Thanks for the review Annie and for being a fellow anti-norman lol

    1. Thanks Paula,
      Yes, it's difficult rooting for the losing side, isn't it? I think Sarah Bower has a gift for a story, and a brave decision to tell the tale the way she did. As you say, removed from the setting it was an enjoyable story. I thought her descriptive imagery was at times very powerful.

    2. Totally agree, and i think this was down to her use of the present tense, which, if used well, can be amazing

    3. I was about I was about to comment when I saw that I already had a year ago. Lol. Getting excited as the battle is coming up for next week and I am sharpening my spear!