“ Genre: Fiction / Author: Richard Herley / Kindle Edition „
Some weeks ago I read and reviewed 'The Penal Colony' by Richard Herley, and I was keen to read more from this author to see whether his other work was of an equally high standard. On the face of it 'The Tide Mill' is as different from 'The Penal Colony' as chalk from cheese. I know I shouldn't compare two such different books as a futuristic thriller and a historical novel, especially as the difference in writing style between the two is very marked. The thriller hit the ground running and the reader was immediately involved in the action whereas with this story, the plot unfolds in a much slower and more measured way and just like life itself, it took some unexpected twists and turns.
It seems to me that there is a common theme to both novels, however; that of isolation and imprisonment. In 'The Penal Colony' these themes were very obvious but in 'The Tide Mill' they're rather more subtle because the isolation and sense of being imprisoned here isn't just geographic but is also to do with the hierarchical structure of thirteenth century England which ensured the rich man remained in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Somewhere between these two is Ralf Grigg and his family.
Lindsell Grigg, Ralf's father is a freeman and master carpenter who has fallen on hard times and has had to return to live with his wife's father, a serf who works for Gervase de Maepp, lord of the manor of Mape. Soon after the family move back to this remote spot on the Sussex coast, Ralf saves Godric, the youngest son of Gervase de Maepp and this act of courage is the start of a friendship between the two boys which resonates throughout their lives as well as the lives of their families.
I must first confess to not knowing a huge amount about day-to-day life in thirteenth century England so I can't vouch for the historical accuracy of the details in this book but that being said, the writer has imbued the story with a real sense of time and place. Although his writing isn't overly descriptive, the author builds up a picture of a very different world from our own. This is a time when communities lived remotely from each other under the feudal system of the middle ages when there were rigid social structures with the king at the top and the serf at the bottom and all men and women owed allegiance to someone above them, although the king owed his loyalties only to God. Even lords of the manor were only there by the grace of the King and their position could be taken from them at his whim.
Although this story sometimes read more like a history text book than a novel this was necessary in order to explain the social structures and the part played by the Church at this time and I actually found it very interesting to learn about medieval life and just what a stranglehold the Church had on everybody in the land at that time. Religion was very much a part of everyday life and even those who questioned God's laws expected eternal damnation.
The tide mill of the title is at the centre of this story. All mills in the land were administered by the Church and various tithes had to be paid in order to own and run one. Gervase de Maepp is in considerable debt not just to the Church but also to the king and to money lenders so when Lindsell and Ralf Grigg come up with a plan to build a mill which relies on the tide rather than the flow of a river, Gervase sees a way to pay off his debts and make some money to secure his position and that of his family. Ecclesiastical law it seems wasn't quite as watertight as the papal lawyers had thought and tide power is not mentioned in any of the legal documentation regarding the owning and running of mills.
Alongside the building of the mill runs the story of the lives and friendship of Godric, Ralf and their respective sisters, Eloise and Imogen. From their first meeting Ralf and Eloise feel a pull of attraction but both resist knowing that although Ralf is accepted as Godric's friend, socially a liaison between the family of a freeman of little monetary worth and a lord of the manor is unacceptable. For years the two deny their feelings and an advantageous marriage with the heir to a dukedom has been arranged for Eloise and a great deal rests on the marriage taking place. The lives of these two families are very finely balanced with much depending on the success of the tide mill project and if anything upsets that balance, everything will collapse like a house of cards.
The story of Eloise's proposed marriage demonstrated just how much aristocratic women were subject to the will of their fathers being little more than pawns to be bartered for position and political alliance. They weren't even regarded as needing to learn to read. Their sole purpose was to seal alliances and produce the next generation. In that respect, lower status women had far more freedom.
The pace of this novel is pretty slow, building gradually to the final denouement and it certainly doesn't pack the kind of punch that 'The Penal Colony' does. This doesn't mean it isn't a very readable story which provides a wonderful evocation of medieval England, one of the best I've ever read, and I had to keep reading to discover what would happen to Ralf and Eloise, would Godric who is destined for a career in the Church he's grown to despise, ever be ordained and would the tide mill prove to be the making or the destruction of the people of Mape.
It's evident that there's a great deal of scholarship and research gone into this book and I learnt a lot of new words and far more about the feudal system than ever I learnt at school. Because of that, its appeal is probably limited in that it's not the kind of story to grab readers who're looking for a fast paced story with lots of action but it will definitely suit those who enjoy history both in its biographical and fictional forms as this story largely manages to combine the two very successfully. It's certainly convinced me that Richard Herley is a first rate writer who has no difficulty in turning his hand to writing novels in very different genres.
The Tide Mill is available from Amazon in Kindle format for £2.21.