I like the timeslip construction and so The Dream Weavers by Barbara Erskine caught my eye. Although well-established, she’s a new author for me as I explore more historical fiction. I admit to looking for more novels without technology and the mores of the modern world. A bit of escapism. Set in two different centuries – Anglo-Saxon England 788AD and the English/Welsh border in 2021 – The Dream Weavers is about the romance of a young English noblewoman and a Welsh prince who meet as Offa’s Dyke is being built. Eadburh and Elisedd are sent by their fathers to ride out along the construction line and report back on progress, but over a few days they fall in love. The dyke is a symbol throughout the book, of rivalries and divisions, of tribes seeking separation rather than acceptance of differences. Eadburh’s father King Offa meant it to be a permanent border line between the two countries but in the centuries after it was built it fell into disrepair. In the modern strand of the story – told by Beatrice Dalloway whose husband Mark is canon treasurer of nearby Hereford Cathedral – the dyke is a bit of a mystery, difficult to find, often missing or destroyed, invisible in the rural landscape.
I liked the history, the myths, the hunting down of secrets and particularly the exploration of how history’s perception of the past can be mistaken. Historians make judgements based on the information available to them at the time, but often they may be unaware that what they believe are historical facts are in reality assumptions, lies, cultural misunderstandings, political interpretations or written by chroniclers with personal agendas. This theme is embodied in the character of historian Simon Armstrong, a specialist in the Anglo-Saxon period, who has rented a cottage in the isolated countryside near the dyke to finish writing his latest book. But Simon has a problem, his cottage seems to have a ghost and his landlady calls Bea for help. Bea is a mystic who has an affinity with ghosts and has studied folklore and the supernatural, a hobby which sits uneasily alongside her husband’s job. As Bea investigates the mysterious voice and noises in and around the cottage, Simon’s two children arrive to stay. Teenager Emma seems delicately susceptible to the supernatural and is drawn into Bea’s dreaming. The connections between Bea and Emma with the Welsh borders of 788AD strengthen and both find it difficult to stay in the 21st century, at increasing danger to themselves.
This felt like a long read but when I finished it and checked I was surprised to see it is only 512 pages. Nowhere near the books I think of a ‘long read’ – Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life [737 pages], Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth  and itself a timeslip tale, or Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth [a stonking 1104 pages]. The links between the timeslip sections became repetitive with Bea sitting down, falling asleep and dreaming a lot of times and at all times of day. This stop-start rhythm took me away from the historical story. I enjoyed all Eadburh’s sections, following her from the first meeting with Elisedd through their whirlwind romance to all that followed. So the modern-day sections of Bea seemed intrusive. But of course this is a timeslip story so it is set in two different time zones, and today’s accepted storytelling method is to introduce a threat to your key character. Bea’s modern-day strand features a cathedral volunteer who at first seems a nosy woman, interfering, disliking the new canon’s wife and possibly fancying Mark herself. But Sandra Bedford is not all she seems and her role towards the end was not what I was expecting.
I was held to the last page by the telling of a tragic love story set in Anglo-Saxon times. I wanted to know what happened to Eadburh and Elisedd – did their love last, did they meet again – and cared less for the other characters.
Having discovered a new author, I plan to go back to the beginning and read Erskine’s debut novel, The Lady of Hay.
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And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
THE DREAM WEAVERS by @Barbaraerskine #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5md via @SandraDanby