In 1751, eleven days were lost as Britain aligned with the Gregorian calendar and this is the year in which Martine Bailey sets her third novel, The Almanack. An original mixture of historical mystery, detective novel and romance, it has time as its theme throughout. The passing of time and the fixedness of the past, the slippery unpredictability of the future, and the way our choices made today can impact on the time to come.
Tabitha Hart is travelling north from London, home to a village near Chester, summoned by a plea from her mother. On route she is robbed and arrives at Netherlea in shredded clothing to find her mother recently drowned. Tabitha left Netherlea in disgrace and her return is not welcomed by village gossips and officials but she refuses to ignore worries about the nature of her mother’s death. Consulting her mother’s Vox Stellarum, the Chester almanack, she discovers handwritten notes outlining her fears of someone called ‘D’. A childhood friend now village constable, widower Joshua Saxton, offers solid, reliable support as Tabitha struggles to stay in the village, caring for Bess, the baby daughter she left behind with her mother. It is clear Joshua is fond of Tabitha but she does not return his affections; awkwardness complicated when she meets Nat Starling, lodger at Eglantine Hall, a writer of ‘penny oracles, horoscopes and dream lore.’ Tabitha starts to make connections between her mother’s suspicions and the predictions in the printed almanac, written by De Angelo. Could this be the ‘D’ who threatened her mother? But there are many people in the village with the initial ‘D’. Who can she trust?
Almanacks, or printed yearbooks, not only contained a calendar, festival dates, seasonal notes, sunrise and sunset times, planetary alignments, historical facts and other country lore but also riddles, predictions and horoscopes. Exactly the sort of thing hack Nat Starling writes to scratch a living. The theme of time breathes in every chapter, together with the lost eleven days in 1751 that confused the established seasonal calendar. Although the past cannot be changed, memories of the past may vary between people and written records can be amended to tell a different version of the truth. Lies told in the past may in the future be deemed historical fact. And so Starling thinks on the river of time: ‘If he was standing here in the now, then to the left, downriver, the past was disappearing away into the night. Time past could never be changed: what was done was done. If only the past did not stay fixed like dead flies in amber. If only he could live his life again.’
A thoroughly enjoyable historical mystery, there is so much detail in this book it will repay reading. I did not fully engage with the riddles – one precedes each chapter – based on original riddles, with the answers written at the back of the book. Bailey manages the twists and turns of the plot, efficiently hiding the identity of ‘D’ until I finally guessed correctly just before the end. This is Bailey’s third novel and another brilliant read, evidence of her mastery of her period and intricate plotting.
Read my reviews of Bailey’s An Appetite for Violets and The Penny Heart.
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE ALMANACK by @MartineBailey #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-3QV via @SandraDanby