Do not go down to your local bookshop to buy The Planter's Daughter by Jo Carroll - known locally as a writer through her widely-read columns for Marlborough.News. This is her first novel and it is only available to download from Amazon to a Kindle (a bargain at £3.50) - or you can download a sample of the opening chapter as text.
Previous books by Jo Carroll have been her travel series of Over the Hill titles - about her adventures in Nepal and Ecuador. The Planter's Daughter was born from a story she heard on her travels in New Zealand in 2005.
It is a novel full of absorbing characters that stretches across the world of Britain's Victorian-era Empire and is as serious as it is entertaining. In each section of the book the story is told through a different person's eyes.
We first meet Irish-born Sara Weldon in Liverpool. We see her through the eyes of her Aunt's maid, Kitty. It is 1847 and she has come to England escaping the potato famine and eventually she leaves Liverpool having become tangentially involved in working class politics - she leaves as a criminal transported to Australia having fallen foul of her scheming Uncle. But before she leaves she provides her Aunt with a purpose in life - we will not spoil that surprise.
In Australia we see Sara through the eyes of a religious zealot Grace, who saves her from the slave market and takes her in as maid to her troubled family. Life near Melbourne on a barely viable small-holding - with a side-line in making tools for the country's many thousand gold prospectors - is vividly drawn and based on sound research.
Grace is not an easy character to read about and you can tell quite early on that her relationship with Sara is based more on Grace's pious views of what people should be like (with the Lord's help) than on any realistic view of Sara's character and how she might make her way in the world.
One of Grace's stepsons takes Sara with him when he leaves home to join life among the rough and tough prospectors. They are mostly men and almost all of them are deprived of female company. Sara's escape and her attempts to support herself financially take her several rungs down the ladder of despair.
Jo Carroll first heard about the 'notorious character' Barbara Weldon when she was in Hokitika (on the west coast of New Zealand's South Island) in 2005 and the book, she says, has been 'simmering' ever since.
The novel turns Barbara into Sara Weldon and it is from Australia that she is sent to New Zealand for using 'obscene language in a public place' - she is transported again. The British Empire's rough and ready legal system could not send its unwanted any further away than antipodean New Zealand.
In New Zealand a magistrate named Grenville, who has been shipped from Scotland to work for the Empire, falls for her undoubted charms and lures her - with promises we know he cannot keep - to Hokitika where he is the local magistrate and where he lives with his starched-pinny of a wife and their two sons, Rupert and Alistair.
He sets Sara up as his mistress in a cabin by the sea - just far enough from the town to keep her from prying eyes. But can she keep away from the men from whom she can make money by selling the only thing that is by now her own - her body? Will she ever save enough to get home to Ireland or to Liverpool? Can Grenville fulfil his promises?
Throughout this section of the novel the magistrate is only referred to by his surname - he is just 'Grenville'. As his relationship with Sara unravels, she refers to him with increasing sarcasm as 'Mr Magistrate'. He ends up abandoned by his wife: "And you - you can walk into the sea for all I care. You might as well. There's not much left for you here, Mr High-and-Mighty Magistrate."
Each historical and geographical part this book has been carefully researched, yet the research is not obtrusive. That it is true of this section. But of all the stages in Sara's story, it is this one that really comes to life both in terms of the characters and the descriptions - especially the descriptions Grenville's state of continual panic as he realises his duplicity will be discovered.
It also lives strongly with Jo Carroll's descriptions of the bleak scenery of the sea shore blasted with winds from the Antarctic, of the little town with its disreputable cast of seekers after gold and of Sara's prisoner-like existence. Some of the scenes reminded me of those desperate beach scenes in the 1993 film The Piano - also set on New Zealand's west coast.
Sara's attempt (in Jo Carroll's words) to 'steer an independent path' in the male dominated nineteenth century, ends badly. Barbara Weldon's life also ended badly - in the words of the real life New Zealand magistrate, it ended "casually and by misfortune".
Jo Carroll could not leave us with Sara simply being "swept along by a tide of events". So she gives us one last chapter that helps explain how Sara ended up on this one-way ladder.
The author takes us back in time to the potato famine that led to Sara's initial move from Ireland to the unpleasant rule of her Aunt and Uncle and to the mayhem and inequalities of Liverpool's burgeoning capitalism.
The descriptions of the Antrim countryside and its inhabitants destroyed by the potato blight are grim. And overlaid onto the disaster of starvation is Ireland's all to blatant religious divide. Sara was, after all, a planter's daughter - and the incoming, colonising Presbyterian planters held out strongly against the native Irish Catholics. So the book ends by taking us into the divides that still blight that part of Ireland to this day.
One of the major accomplishments of this novel is that the story flows so clearly. There are no unlikely coincidences to perplex the reader and undermine the veracity of the tale. This is as close to the real story of such women as Barbara Weldon as we are likely to get.
However, coincidences do happen. No sooner had I finished The Planter's Daughter and put away the Kindle, than I spotted a report in my morning newspaper datelined Hokitika and headlined "Miners pile in for latest gold rush in New Zealand".
In the 1860s gold rush, Hokitika, this report says, had 72 hotels and few women: "Just as today, the original miners were secretive about their claims, often laying false trails and misinformation to lure their competitors away from prosperous sites."
Magistrate Grenville's pot of gold was Sara herself - and his false trails and misinformation led to his downfall and to Sara's death. His was 'fool's gold' and she paid the price for his folly.
We can look forward to Jo Carroll's next novel - whether it is available between hard or soft covers or online.
The Flower Witch, photo by Mark Douet
A fight between good and evil with an icy darkness – Milo Davison (10) reports from Bristol Old Vic's Christmas production.
The Snow Queen at Bristol Old Vic made a unexpected start. The two main characters, Gerda and Kai, were introduced as puppets.
In the small peasant Village of the Yellow Roses both began as swaddled blankets, then as toddlers and young children both were puppets controlled by actors - learning to crawl then as young children until actors Steven Roberts (Kai) and Emily Burnett (Gerda) took over.
The songs were catchy, the music and lyrics were relevant to the scenes and I often wanted to dance.
I liked when Gerda and Kai called each other names in their first song to show how good friends they were, like ‘a factory full of farts’ and ‘the stickiest, stickiest kind of glue’.
Thousands of miles away in the Antarctic, I think, two goblins had captured bad-tempered children to feed the Snow Queen with their angry thoughts.
Doctor Boffin, played by Joanna Holden, and a goblin apprentice, played by Dylan Wood, were pulling a giant machine.
This machine looked handmade and I really liked all the gadgets they could pull out. Then a shadow projection of the Snow Queen appeared and we heard her speak - Gwyneth Herbert, the musical director, made a voice that sounded like it extinguished all hope.
Then back in the village Kia was captured for his big heart which was turned black by a magical shard. So started Gerda’s adventure to find her friend.
In one scene she swam with the turtles and these were my favourite costumes - they had green clothing a big shell on their back and it looked like their bellies were resting on a skateboard or a platform with wheels so they could scoot along really smoothly.
Gerda washed up on a beach where the Flower Witch, played by Miltos Yerolemou, found her. He had a hilarious costume of a flowery body with a fake beard with artificial flowers stuck to it.
He also had a companion called Parrot, played by Jessica Hayles. Her costume was quite cool with feathers sticking out here and there and a head-dress with a row of multicoloured feathers along the top which kind of reminded me of a centurion.
The Flower Witch had been bullied by other humans but Gerda made friends with him and liked him for his different style, just like her friend Kai who preferred dancing to football.
My favourite song was by the evil Duchess which was robotic and electronic and my favourite character was the Snow Queen.
Her costume had a giant icy ribcage a long snow battered dress night black beady eyes and a rugby ball shaped head with icicles sticking out - how she looked was how she was inside.
The set was great too, especially the smoke effects making icy fog.
A soul devouring, heart touching, laughing happiness, heartbreaking, icy sunlit performance.
The Snow Queen runs until January 15. For tickets, visit www.bristololdvic.org.uk/snowqueen
Marlborough Concert Orchestra“This orchestra gets better and better.” ...was a comment overheard on Saturday 3rd December, when the Marlborough Concert Orchestra gave its Winter Concert at St. Mary’s Church to a highly appreciative audience.
There was a strong ‘young’ element to the evening. Alexander Webb, currently a Conducting Scholar at the Royal Northern College of Music, came to the podium at very short notice and conducted with aplomb, giving fine, clear direction. The two professional soloists in the first half were Irene Enzlin (‘cello) and Verena Chen (violin) who gave us a superb rendition of Brahms’ Double Concerto; in this they were ably supported by the orchestra. It is said that Brahms was very diffident about this concerto. On the basis of this performance, there was no need for such modesty.
Following the interval, when raffle prizes were collected (one lucky family appeared nearly to scoop the pool), there was an impromptu encore from the soloists – a delightful Passacaglia by the Norwegian composer, Halvorsen. After this, the orchestra set forth with Invitation to the Dance by Weber, described by one member of the orchestra as “not as easy (to play) as it sounds”. These playersd did make it sound easy, David Edwards, (1st ‘cello) set the standard with the opening solo part.
Next came the Vocalise Op.14 No.14 by Rachmaninov, in which momentum was well-maintained under Alex Webb’s baton and the familiar ‘sob factor’ of this composer shone through. Finally, we had Variations on a theme of Haydn by Brahms, where each section of the orchestra came to the fore separately and collectively, demonstrating fine musical abilities in dealing with the changing pace of these variations. The comment at the opening to this review was right, this was an evening of splendid music, well-played.
The Castalian Quartet - l to r: Daniel Roberts, Sini Simonen, Charlotte Booneton, Christopher GravesIn February Christopher Graves brought Alison Rhind to St Peter’s Church to perform a joint piano and cello recital. This time (Sunday, November 20), Christopher brought more of his friends - friends who have formed the Castalian Quartet.
Having started their training variously in Helsinki, France and Britain, they graduated together with Masters Degrees in Chamber Music in Hannover in 2014, the year they released their first recording to considerable critical acclaim. Just recognition came quickly.
They won the First Prize at the 2015 Lyon International Chamber Music Festival, and have developed an extensive repertoire and an impressive range of bookings. They are a group on the ascendant, and we were very privileged to welcome them in homely Saint Peter’s since they were to play the same programme later in the week in a grander setting in Frankfurt.
The evening began with Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major. It is the only string quartet he wrote. It was written in 1903 while he was still one of Faure’s students at the Paris Conservatoire. It opens with a sweeping, delicate adagio movement, like gossamer shimmering in a gentle breeze - beautifully and delicately played.
The second movement has another sweeping melody batted from one instrument to another, the remaining members of the ensemble playing pizzicato for much of the time. Ravel was imitating the sound of gamelan music from South East Asia, being one of many artists profoundly influenced by eastern music at the turn of the last century.
This is followed by a slow movement, the plangent musical lines delicately shaped and played with immense intensity. The work concludes with a fast and furious movement with the theme introduced in the first movement rising above the agitated playing of the lower strings. This was a superb performance, full of energy and intensity. The subtle changes in dynamics and abrupt shifts in rhythms were adroitly conveyed.
The second work in their concert, Four Quarters by Thomas Ades had been written for the Emerson String Quartet and first performed in 2011. Thomas Ades studied music at King’s College Cambridge. He is an accomplished pianist and was runner up as BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1990. However it is as a composer than he is better known. He is now Benjamin Britten Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music and has written a wealth of both orchestral music and a series of operas.
Never slow to incorporate new ideas, his ‘Polaris’ is written for piano, orchestra and five video screens! This work, ‘Four Quarters’, requires less demanding resources, but is technically very challenging.
The work is a time sequence, each movement exploring a different stage of the day. ‘Nightfalls’ is quite remarkable. The upper four instruments playing a series of high pitched individual notes interacting with one another over the steady continuo of the cello. Tiny droplets of crystal, sparkling like stars: a brilliant portrayal of the vastness of the heavens. ‘Morning Dew’ is almost entirely played pizzicato, the whole movement finishing with a series of upward-sweeping octaves.
The last movement ‘The Twenty-fifth Hour’ was quite amazing. The rhythmic sequences are very complex and into their mathematical pattern is woven a wild dance-like fury, slowly dying away until the fragile harmonies give way to complete silence.
This was stupendous playing by a group of musicians who revelled in the musical and technical opportunities which Ades had provided. The audience was left utterly amazed both with the virtuosic playing, but also at the complexity and compositional ingenuity which the music had portrayed.
The second half of the programme was devoted to Brahms’s String Quartet No 3 in B Flat. This was music that fitted within the ‘frames of reference’ which the audience recognised! It is a lovely piece in which the first movement begins with a series of hunting calls followed by a pastoral rocking theme, in which Brahms uses his ever-favourite two time signatures at the same time.
The third movement, an adagio, consists largely of a wonderful and languid viola solo. It is written as a waltz, but the music is surprisingly dark and tormented. The clouds clear for the last movement, a Finale in the form of a theme and variations in which the initial hunting theme from the first movement plays a significant part.
The diversity of mood in these movements was subtly expressed and the viola playing was really lovely. The group played as one, the eye-contact being ample evidence of how melded they are as chamber players.
What a concert! Three dramatically different works from three different centuries and different musical traditions, one of which took us out of our ‘comfort zone’. They gave us great pleasure - their warmth of personality and their musical skill appreciated by us all.
The Quartet are: Sini Simonen (violin), Daniel Roberts (violin), Charlotte Booneton (viola) and Christopher Graves (cello).