Guest Author - Asha Sahni
Barbara Erskine’s knowledge of Scottish History, a subject she studied at Edinburgh University, is showcased in Kingdom of Shadows. The book tells the story of Clare Royland, unhappy in her marriage, who finds that meditation provides her with a gateway to the past. Clare’s chief fascination is with Isobel, Countess of Buchan, whose story Clare heard from her Great Aunt Margaret countless times when she was a child. Clare is drawn deeper and deeper into Isobel’s world as the story progresses and Isobel’s story unfolds. This is a long, epic book, yet for all the length it is a book I find easy to read, a page-turner which carries me through the story with ease and grace.
When I first read Kingdom of Shadows I did so without criticism, enjoying the flow of the story, the dialogue, the interweaving of present and past. Rereading the book for this review – informed by a far greater knowledge of Scotland’s geography and history – I found myself able to picture many of the locations mentioned in the book which I have visited including Edinburgh and Berwick. I also have greater appreciation of the historical sections of the novel, enjoying both the detail and the atmosphere the author invokes when writing about the distant past.
I now find the “present” parts of the book somewhat dated – some of the dialogue seems stiff (I sometimes found myself laughing at dialogue I am sure was meant to be serious!). It is difficult to feel empathy for many of the characters, for instance Clare’s husband Paul. Some characters seem more important for their role in the story than their individuality, cogs in the greater wheels of the larger plot.
I read Kingdom of Shadows shortly after publication in 1988, having enjoyed Erskine’s previous novel Lady Of Hay - another book where the historical past has huge impact on the present. Kingdom of Shadows came to mind when I recently read about some of the women associated Robert the Bruce’s nationalist campaign being held in cages by the English as punishment for their Scottish allegiance. Days later I found a secondhand copy of Kingdom of Shadows in a shop in Inverness. It has been a pleasurable rereading of a book I thoroughly enjoyed more than twenty years ago. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys stories about Scotland and/or historical fiction.