A few days ago there was a discussion in my on line reading group about how we responded to people who slated books we loved (and rather worse than a simple slating then proceed to poor scorn on anyone who liked the poor book in the first place - which I consider appalling bad manners). I spent some time saying that all that mattered to me is if a story entertained me enough or not – I don’t consider myself a terribly critical reader unless something really annoys me to the point that I can’t engage with what’s going on. Sometimes that’s down to bad writing but more often its inconsistent details or poor storytelling that do for me. I read primarily for entertainment and after that information and atmosphere, I like to think I’m reasonably discerning but I also hope I’m reasonably open minded about where I might find my entertainment.
In truth I’m probably too much of a snob about books to be really open minded but after that particular conversation, and coming out of a book as utterly absorbing as ‘A Rage To Live’ I was a little bit stuck as to what to go for next. I settled on ‘The Maid’ because it was sent to me from Bloomsbury and I’ve been giving it sideways looks ever since it arrived. It’s not generally the sort of book I get enthusiastic about (historical fiction, especially when it’s about real people, and it’s a hardback...) but when asked I said yes please to the book so it would be churlish to ignore it.
It turns out that Kimberly Cutter is a good story teller, good enough to stop me getting totally obsessed about the little things (although I still don’t think Joan of Arc would have been anywhere near a baked potato) which is saying something, good enough to keep me reading late into the night so that I got through this book in a day as well. I think it helps that the language is basically modern – one less thing to pick holes in or distract from the action.
Joan’s fate is both well known and grim so it also came as a surprise that the best bit of the book was the section that dealt with imprisonment and death - when she’s questioning if what she did was her will or God’s will and realises that she isn’t yet ready or willing to die. It could have come across as pompous and heavy handed but I think Cutter carries off the philosophy and theology with commendable skill. It humanises Joan, knocking the fanatic edge off her and brings the book together nicely.
Reading the reviews of ‘The Maid’ on amazon I see it’s described as a great summer read, and although I think it would be a better autumn/winter number I broadly agree. It satisfies on the entertainment front, is informative enough to make me want to know more, and has some interesting ideas lurking in the background. It’s also gone from being a book I was deeply suspicious of to one that I would happily recommend all of which makes me very smugly believe that I do indeed practice what I preach.