Gates of Paradise by Beryl Kingston

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Gates of Paradise by Beryl Kingston

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Fairhead
Reviewed by Sue Fairhead
Summary: Fact and fiction intermingle seamlessly in this historical novel which follows the story of the poet William Blake, and also the love affair of Johnnie and Betsy.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: October 2007
Publisher: Allison & Busby
ISBN: 978-0749080716

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Gates of Paradise is the kind of novel that brings history alive. I didn't know anything much about the poet William Blake before I started reading it. I had come across a few of his poems, but had no impression in my mind of the man himself. However, Beryl Kingston has constructed a very believable Blake, in a historical context which fits well with biographical details that I have since looked up on Wikipedia.

Blake and his wife Catherine move to the village of Felpham in Sussex at the start of this novel, in the year 1800. He is going to be under the patronage of the better-known (at the time) poet, William Hayley, and has great hopes for a happier life than he has so far experienced in London. Blake is a highly emotional man, subject to strange visions and extreme dejection, but he is also honest and hard-working, and soon earns the respect of his neighbours.

Meanwhile, two of William Hayley's servants, Johnnie and Betsy (whom I assume are fictional) start 'walking out' and soon become more and more intimate. The story of their love affair runs alongside the time when the Blakes settle into their new home, and make friends.

As well as this, there is a brief introductory letter at the start of each of the first few chapters, written by a lawyer in 1850 (again, I assume he is fictional). He is staying in Felpham and trying to research some information about William Blake, since he admires his poetry greatly, and wants to write his biography. The letters - to his wife - show increasing impatience with the locals, who remember Blake well but refuse entirely to answer some of the lawyer's questions about a court case which Blake was involved in, a few years after he moved to Felpham.

I couldn't quite see the point of these letters when I started reading the book, and it took me a few days reading a chapter at a time before I got into the story. However I realised after a while that they were designed to build tension - and, indeed, I found myself wondering what on earth the court case could be about, and what the mystery was. As the story moves forward, the events leading up to the court case (something which did actually happen) come to life.

It's a story of friendship, and loyalty, and love. Blake was not a conventional man of the period, and some of his different morality theories are explored in the storyline. It's also an excellent piece of social history, thoroughly researched by the author's husband. The real and the fictional are so well-blended that I had no idea which parts were factual until I did some of my own research. I still don't know for sure which of the minor characters, if any, were real people.

I have only two small criticisms of this book. Firstly, it was pretty slow-moving to begin with; so much so that many people might give up before it becomes interesting. Secondly, and this is a minor gripe, I really don't need to be told precisely what certain parts of a man's body are doing when he is kissing a beautiful girl. Most of the book is not explicit at all, so the occasional detailed revelations of the obvious were simply irritating.

For my personal tastes, I'd probably give three-and-a-half stars; although the characters came to life, I didn't find myself relating to any of them, or caring too much what happened to them. But not everyone wants character-driven novels as I do, so from a more objective perspective, I am giving four Bookbag stars.

Further reading: if you enjoy realistic historical novels, you might like The River Flows On by Maggie Craig, Off the Rails by Beryl Kingston or The Tinner's Daughter by Rosemary Aitken.

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