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The Brethren (Fortunes of France) by Robert Merle and T Jefferson Kline (translator)

After fighting for France for most of their adulthoods, the two Jeans, de Siorac and de Saveterre (nicknamed 'The Brethren') take over the chateau and settlement at Mespech in the Perigore region of France. There the newly founded community flourishes as people like Jonas the stone-cutter move in, signalling growth. De Siorac does his bit by producing a family. However this is the 16th century and conflict is never far away. Nationally France is threatened by Spain and England but it's also a threat to itself as brother fights brother – Catholic versus Huguenot. Indeed, the Brethren live in fear of the consequences of their own Huguenot faith although de Siorac doesn't make life easy for himself – his wife Isabelle is Catholic. His personal battles reflect those of the country and have effects that, for him, are just as critical.

The Brethren (Fortunes of France) by Robert Merle and T Jefferson Kline (translator)

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: The first book in an already-written epic 13 volume saga of French historical fiction – in English! Starting in 1545 and, judging from this episode, it's easy to read yet intelligent, fascinating, well-researched and will appeal to all hist fict fans, gender and author allegiance is immaterial.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: September 2014
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 978-1782270447

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Robert Merle was born in French Algeria in 1908, moving to France with his family in 1918. He had an interesting professional life, working as a Professor of English Literature in many universities before the war interrupted academia, diverting him to the British Expeditionary Force where he served as an interpreter. After the war he wrote his first novel Weekend in Zuycoote based on his experiences in the BEF and his time spent as a German prisoner of war after Dunkirk.

There were various other novels along the way and then, in 1977, he penned Fortune de France, writing in its foreword I have not excluded the possibility of providing a sequel. He went on to prove his point by extending it into a series of thirteen books, the last completed in 2003, the year before his death.

Now, rather belatedly, 11 years after that final novel was published in France, the enterprising Pushkin Press have retitled the first book and published it in English. Was it worth the wait? Most definitely!

The first thing that strikes us about the novel is the density of print but as we slowly submerge ourselves into the inviting, warm, bath-like comfort of the prose, word count per inch ceases to matter. The words Robert adopts and nurtures and the tale into which he forms them are actually rather moreish and of course the beautifully sympathetic translation by T Jefferson Kline goes a long way towards assisting.

The language is modern English with a nice lilt reminding us that it's set in times gone by. This duality is also carried forward into the characters. These are people with the same traits and personalities as those we see around us in the 21st century and yet...

The Jeans are both paternal, wanting to do their best for the village they've founded as well as for close family. De Siorac's children are just that – typical children, teasing, fighting in sibling rivalry and as naughty as they are inquisitive adding an edge of authenticity. However the challenges that the people of Mespech face are firmly rooted in their time.

The story is narrated in retrospect by Pierre de Siorac, Jean d-S's now adult son who shows us around history we may be familiar with from the perspective of this side of the Channel. It's refreshing to hear about the struggles against the Spanish and our own Mary Tudor from a Frenchman, reinforcing that we Brits aren't always the 'goodies' of history.

Indeed, Merle is an accomplished weaver mixing the warp of national events such as the serial-demise of French kings and the rise of Catherine de Medici with the weft of 16th century domesticity. His research is well-gauged, adding little story factoids that will be hard for us to forget. For instance, I had never before considered the problems of a patriarchal community that relies on muscle power once all able-bodied men had gone to war or the logistics required to manage a team of scythe-wielders at harvest. As for wet nurses, had we even stopped for a moment to consider the personal sacrifice they made in order to synchronise their own pregnancies with the person whom they were serving? It's obvious when we think about it – a wet nurse without milk isn't a wet nurse but no author has made me think about it before.

This is classy hist fict that eclipses greats like Philippa Gregory (and I speak as a PG fan). As each chapter crosses the readership gender divide we're swept away by triumph, tragedy, action and adventure exhibiting the full range of an author described as 'the Dumas of the 20th century'. Another twelve books like this? Oh yes; it's a novel like this that makes reviewing one of the best jobs in the world.

(Thank you Pushkin Press for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If this appeals and you want to continue with the 16th century European history theme, we also recommend A Name in Blood by Matt Rees.

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Booklists.jpg The Brethren (Fortunes of France) by Robert Merle and T Jefferson Kline (translator) is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books 2014.


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Rob Bryant said:

I look forward to reading this series. I have enjoyed and can recommend the English translations of the six volumes of The Accursed Kings by Maurice Druon, which cover the collapse of the Capet Dynasty in 1309 beginning with the arrest of the Knight Templars of France and the sequestration of their considerable holdings, leading to the Hundred Years War.

Rob Bryant