A couple of weeks ago I read and reviewed Gutenberg’s Apprentice, which tells the story of the birth of printing in Europe. The Crimson Ribbon, set two hundred years later, is a strangely apt novel to follow with, as it shows how printing was then used as a propaganda tool and how the craze for spreading ideas through print led to radical changes in the state and how people saw the powerful.
Opening in the most horrific and brutal description of the savagery of 17th century misogyny, this superb debut by Katherine Clements is the story of Ruth Flowers, sometime maid to Oliver Cromwell, who becomes tied up with the lives of Elizabeth Poole, mystic and prophetess, and the radical Levellers printing their pamphlets out of London’s West End. Throughout Ruth, vulnerable, trusting and occasionally frustratingly naive, tries her hardest to keep her head above water and her secret history of witchcraft and suspicion still secret.
This book is remarkable in that it is so original. I’ve read plenty of books about love, sexuality, witchcraft, mysticism, politics and printing but never, I think, all of them together. Abusive relationships, the reliance of a partner who suffers from an emotionally manipulative partner on their abuser and the psychological effect of this need, all tied in with the horror of the Civil War, the effects of revolutions on the mindset of the common people, and the radical shift of religious thought. What is most remarkable is that she has managed to squeeze all of this is such a compressed and well structure book-it is only 350 pages, feels like 200, could have easily been extended to 400 without me getting bored.
The structure is also wonderfully done. It starts as it means to go on; violent, but descriptive and well thought out.
No wonder really, Clements was on the examination board for the first ever Creative Writing degree, so you’d expect this to be well executed. It is very very fictionalised-so if you like your historical fiction to be ‘real’ stories based on real characters this isn’t the book for you as it will just frustrate you. But it is fresh and new and comes with a beautiful front cover so anyone who supports new, decent, writing should read it. I loved it and cannot recommend enough.