The Traitor's Wife by Kathleen KentI'm not generally a fan of stories featuring women of the 17th century who are too self-willed to find husbands. It's difficult for people today to understand the cruel realities of a woman's life then or the simple difficulties of day-to-day life for anyone, not least a single maid. Kent's book, though, confronts those realities head-on. Her single woman is living in the American colonies and the harshness of existence in a world of disease, Indian raids, vicious weather and minimal comfort is convincingly portrayed.
This isn't just a story about life in the American wilderness, though. The tale centres on Thomas, the one man Martha feels for and who reciprocates her love. But Thomas has a secret: he is one of the men who slew King Charles I and the second Charles has sent hired killers to bring him back to England. The story then moves between London and the New World with flashbacks to the Civil War. It makes for a sometimes disjointed but always gripping tale which imposes modern judgements on the characters much less than most writers do. Their moral qualms and the compromises they make to stay alive are viewed sympathetically, though Charles II is somewhat harshly drawn - but, then again, he was probably not a particularly nice man. This is, at heart, a love story, but one where kisses and lingering looks are usually secondary to violence and betrayal and sudden death. You cannot be sure, right to the end, if all will work out well and the historical note suggests another bitter twist after the story in the book is over. It's not a perfect book. One section, in particular, is told in the first person and the voice, for me, lacked conviction. The rambling nature of the plot can leave the reader out of joint as people once thought dead turn up alive and others reveal themselves as not at all what you might have expected. An apparently irrelevant prologue only turns out to be a vital clue to one character's motivation in the closing chapters. Kent has, however, created a convincing world of real people. It's a world well worth a visit.