August 07, 2006

An English History Fantasy

Elements of Cinderella, intertwined with British history make Sally Gardner's
I, Coriander
a strange and interesting story. Based in Cromwell's England of the 1600's, this novel is of the tale of the Hobie family.

Coriander is well loved by her mother, Eleanor, and her father, Thomas, who is a busy merchant. They are very well thought of, and very well off, with servants and goods to spare. But Cromwell's England is a perilous place, and rumors abound that Eleanor is a witch. And she is... something. She has paintings of herself and Thomas with fanciful backgrounds of lands never seen. She is an able herbalist, has rooms full of distilled medicines, and heals the sick all throughout London. She receives gifts of fancy silver shoes for her daughter, but refuses to allow her to wear them. There is something about Eleanor... But Coriander only cares that she is her mother, and good and loving. Only later, when her mother dies of a sudden and horrible illness, does Coriander realize how little she knew about her. Where was she born? What was her childhood like? There is no one left to answer those questions, and Coriander is left alone with only her governess -- and a scary future.

Coriander's father isn't a staunch Puritan, and nobody who isn't a Puritan can prosper with Lord Cromwell in power. A friend arranges for Master Hobie to marry a pious Puritan woman and retain his respectability -- but what happens next is shocking. The pious woman turns out to be an awful, evil, malign force. She brings with her an evil man who beats Coriander. At the height of their evil, Coriander finds a way into a new world... another world... the world of her mother's childhood. It is a world where time runs more quickly, and the world behind her ceases to exist for what seems like days, but is in reality, years. Here she finds the strength, and the heart, to make her way again.

There are some troubling themes in this novel; one that the beastly behavior of the Puritan adults seems rather one-dimensional and uninspiredly evil. Their behavior scarcely makes ...sense. The question is repeatedly raised as to howa religious person could be that way, but it is never answered, and it seems as if the author's bias is simply being exposed. The character of Coriander, her stepsister, her mother and her protector and governess are very fixed; they don't seem to change throughout a tale that takes place over many years. Other than these small details, which at times make the novel seem overly long, this is a good blending of fantasy and historical fiction.

Author Sally Gardner grew up dyslexic in London, and so it's a doubly marvelous thing that she was able to write the stories that she imagined. Certainly elements of Coriander's plucky spirit and determination must have come from the author herself.

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