24 September 2010


If I were to pretend to be a reviewer, what would my review of The Confession of Katherine Howard be? Um, first, let's think about the structure of a typical book review.

First, I guess, there's a summary of what the book's about, and a bit of contextualisation - what kind of book has this writer produced before.

With The Confession of Katherine Howard Suzannah Dunn continues her exploration of the troubled and usually shortened lives of the wives of Henry VIII. This time her attention turns to the fifth wife, who rose from obscurity, but whose reign and life ended in allegations of adultery.

Then we might turn to what kind of writing it is.
The story is told by a minor player in the unfolding tragedy. Cat Tilney, largely Dunn's invention, has known the Queen since they were children, and, mostly in flashback, shows how she got to this impossible, untenable position. As with previous books, Dunn brings a modern language to these Tudor characters. Katherine says that she has been questioned about "the matter of who I was fucking before I became queen".

I guess what's happening there is all part of letting the reader know if this is the sort of thing they will like, swearing and all. (Actually, there's very little swearing in the book.) This is where there could be more about Suzannah's style, and some smart-arse quibbling.
One feels that tighter editing might have given the central section of the book more pace. And how can sentences like this survive: "I was happy to let him go, because he wasn’t whom I thought he was"?

In the interests of balance, you'd need to quote some of the very nice writing.
At its best, Dunn's prose is musical and surprises with its imagery. When Cat compares herself with the Queen, she says: "I was narrow-hipped and sharply articulated, and my heart, unlike hers, was diamond."

Then the review needs to establish the reviewer's authority for giving a judgement.
Katherine's story is well-known, and the outcome can be no surprise, so Dunn's task is to maintain our interest despite this.

And some kind of judgement ...
As the novel goes on, one senses that its focus switches from the actions of the Queen to those of the narrator, and their relationship, with its threads of jealousy and ultimately betrayal, moves into the foreground. In its latter part the novel doesn't quite fulfill its initial promise of exploring the motivation of this Queen, but neither does the early part adequately set up the rivalry between the two women, which could, and ought to, intensify the tragic dilemma of the ending.
... without giving too much away.

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