A sadly off-key swan song
The Reavers - George MacDonald Fraser
Member Name: duncantorr
The Reavers - George MacDonald Fraser
Date: 22/02/08, updated on 29/09/08 (252 review reads)
Advantages: MacDonald Fraser could do very little wrong
Disadvantages: But this might be that very little
Given the circumstances, I would have loved to be able to say I loved The Reavers. But I can't.
George MacDonald Fraser is - or perhaps I should say was - one of my favourite authors, his Flashman series being among the literary feats of our time. Sadly, he died just a month ago, so this will be his last book, and it would have been good if he could have gone out on a high note. Sadly again, though, The Reavers is an off-key swan song, only slightly off-key, but to succeed it needed perfect pitch, and it lacks it. Or maybe it fails by attempting to strike simultaneously chords that could never combine harmoniously.
Fails? Let's hear what the author has to say. "This book is nonsense," proclaims the foreword to the novel. "The Reavers is simply GMF taking off on what a learned judge would call a frolic of his own." Fair enough, one might think. Having pleaded guilty to self-indulgence, perhaps he should in turn be treated indulgently and let off lightly. But somehow one suspects that he protests too much, and that the book is intended to indulge the reader as well as the author, and to succeed either as a historical adventure story or as humour, or preferably both. And it almost does, but only almost.
* Setting and plot *
The Reavers is set in the border country between England and Scotland towards the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. This is a lawless land, beset by gangs of reivers (a more usual spelling, in the book and elsewhere, than that used in the title) to whom rape, pillage, highway robbery and bloodfeuds are the stuff of everyday life - somewhere between a profession and a pastime.
Into this inhospitable territory is thrust gorgeous, hoity-toity Lady Godiva Dacre, banished from court to her estate at Thrashbatter Tower, accompanied by her flirtatious friend Kylie. Rescued from a reiver ambush by the dashing but deceitful Gilderoy, who doubles as a highwayman and Scottish secret agent, they find themselves flung into a series of hair-raising adventures. Hunky Archie Noble, who doubles as a castle-breaker and English secret agent, emerges as a rival to Gilderoy, both for Lady Godiva's affections and for the honour of thwarting a dastardly popish plot. The plot's purpose is to replace Scottish King James VI (who is also due to succeed Elizabeth as James I of England) with an impostor.
Should this conspiracy succeed where the armada failed, Britain will become a Catholic Spanish puppet kingdom, subjected to all the horrors of foreign rule and the inquisition in action. The conspirators include a whole identity parade of pantomime villains, such as a duplicitous Dominican friar, a Hispanic sorceress/femme fatale, a weird wizard and a blowpipe-toting pygmy freshly recruited from Spain's Amazonian empire.
Will the conspiracy be stopped in time? Which of our unlikely heroes will get the credit, and the girl, or will they both miss out? Punctuated with both timely and untimely interventions by reiver gangs from both sides of the border, the action swings hectically back and forth across the country between Carlisle and Edinburgh before reaching its climactic conclusion.
* Treatment and style *
"A hilarious borders burlesque" reads the strapline beneath the title on the cover, and The Reavers is written - one might say over-written - as if striving to live up to this description. The language is arch to the point of exaggeration, full of mock-Shakespearean and mock-Romantic-novel turns of phrase. Whenever these risk becoming puffed-up or overblown, MacDonald Fraser's trick is to puncture them with a modern slang-word or reference.
The opening sentence alone weighs in at over 300 words and half-a-dozen sly allusions, but was perhaps contrived as a defiant statement of intent and should not be taken as typical. Nevertheless, opening a page at random for an example, I find: "A parlous plight, you'll admit, for a tender maid (well, not all that tender, really, but quite untrained in crime-busting) on her first day in residence, and 'twas a distracted Lady Godiva who presently paced up and down before the hall's great fireplace, fingering luscious lip and kicking passing menials, while placid Kylie sat by embroidering an Armada 88 T-shirt which she intended to send to Sir Walter Raleigh with her picture and address pinned inside."
Droll enough, perhaps, but when this allusive style is maintained throughout the length of the novel, including the action sequences, it becomes wearisome. Generally, this kind of humour, dextrously interspersing flights of verbal fancy with anachronistic references, appeals to me, and MacDonald Fraser does it as well as anyone, but sometimes one longs for him simply to get on with telling the story.
The same reservation applies to the dialogue, which is written in similar style with the added complication of appropriate - and sometimes, for effect, inappropriate - accents. The English reivers, for example, who all sport names like Milburn and Charlton, speak Geordie larded with footballing phrases; the Scottish (including Gilderoy) speak Gorbals larded with footballing phrases; the Spaniards speak Dago and so on. Posh, Cockney and Russki are among other accents that are given an airing, all rendered phonetically. Deciphering dialects and identifying arcane references makes for an amusing puzzle, but not for an easy read. Or even, in consequence, for a particularly entertaining one.
As if aware that he might be making it all too much of a challenge for the reader, MacDonald Fraser inserts brief, italicised paragraphs between chapters, recapping the state of play and foreshadowing what is to come. Wittily tongue-in-cheek though these often are, they come across as self-conscious rather than helpful, and serve only to emphasise the artificiality of the whole exercise.
* The Reavers v Flashman *
Artificiality and self-consciousness are The Reavers' fatal flaws. A few years ago, reviewing one of MacDonald Fraser's brilliant Flashman books, I commented: "the Flashman series is extraordinary clever, since it works simultaneously at three levels: as adventure, as humour and as history, or quasi-history at least." The Reavers doesn't quite work at any of these levels, since it goes beyond being clever and becomes clever-clever instead.
The Reavers doesn't work as adventure, because the reader doesn't for a moment believe in the narrative, and therefore can't really care about its outcome. A rollicking romp it may be, but not a credible one. All the anachronisms, word-games and knockabout farce conspire to reinforce disbelief rather than to suspend it.
This is partly because it doesn't work as history. Ironically, MacDonald Fraser, himself a native of the border country, was actually an expert on the reivers in the relevant era, this being the subject of his only serious historical work, The Steel Bonnets. But he chose not to draw much upon his expertise in The Reavers, and the reivers who appear in it are mere caricatures. Without the underpinning of a credible historical background, the structure of the narrative is intrinsically shaky.
Saddest of all, The Reavers doesn't really work as humour either. Again, the comparison with Flashman is telling. Flashman's anti-heroic antics are all the funnier because their enactment is plausibly plotted and because they contrast so sharply with a believable background of Victorian values. Without a believable background or plausible plot to sustain it, the humour in The Reavers flounders. It brings a knowing smile to the lips, but not a spontaneous laugh to the belly. The book is action-packed without being exciting, witty without being truly funny.
* Plea in mitigation *
How narrow is the borderline between success and failure. The Reavers is nearly a splendid book. It has some excellent ingredients, but they just don't belong in the same recipe, or at least not in this one. The flavours cancel each other out. In a way, it's a waste of some wonderful verbal virtuosity, crafty wisecracks and potentially hilarious situations and characters. The whole seems less than the sum of its parts.
I hope MacDonald Fraser had fun writing it. Who could begrudge him his fun, when in his earlier books he gave so much fun to others? But somehow, I doubt that he did. From his disclaimer in the foreword ("This book is nonsense....a frolic"), one guesses he would have liked The Reavers to come across as effortless enjoyment. Instead, it smacks of someone striving too hard for effect.
This would be understandable. MacDonald Fraser was into his 80s and in poor health when he wrote it. Much as he cultivated an image of not caring what people thought of him (for example, he delighted in shocking liberals with his trenchantly right-wing opinions), one suspects he cared very much about his literary reputation. The painstaking research and attention to detail that characterise most of his books speak volumes about his professional pride. His very disclaimer in the foreword may just be an attempt to insure himself against accusations of failure by pretending never to have tried.
I for one can't blame him for that. With so many hits behind him, he should be allowed the odd near-miss in his declining years. His reputation will be big enough to transcend it.
* Standard stuff *
The Reavers is published in the UK by Harper Collins, ISBN 978-0-00-725383-8. Cover price for the 230 pp hardback is £18.99, though you can find it for less (Amazon, for example, has it at £12.53). There will doubtless be a paperback edition at a lower price out in due course for those who can bear to wait, and I regret to say I would advise waiting. It's just about worth reading, but not as a priority. Fill in the time by reading Flashman.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2008
Summary: A potentially hilarious historic frolic that doesn't quite fulfil its potential