Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Book Review: Bristol House by Beverly Swerling


In the tradition of Kate Mosse, a swiftly-paced mystery that stretches from modern London to Tudor England

In modern-day London, architectural historian and recovering alcoholic Annie Kendall hopes to turn her life around and restart her career by locating several long-missing pieces of ancient Judaica. Geoff Harris, an investigative reporter, is soon drawn into her quest, both by romantic interest and suspicions about the head of the Shalom Foundation, the organization sponsoring her work. He’s also a dead ringer for the ghost of a monk Annie believes she has seen at the flat she is subletting in Bristol House.

In 1535, Tudor London is a very different city, one in which monks are being executed by Henry VIII and Jews are banished. In this treacherous environment of religious persecution, Dom Justin, a Carthusian monk, and a goldsmith known as the Jew of Holborn must navigate a shadowy world of intrigue involving Thomas Cromwell, Jewish treasure, and sexual secrets. Their struggles shed light on the mysteries Annie and Geoff aim to puzzle out—at their own peril.

This riveting dual-period narrative seamlessly blends a haunting supernatural thriller with vivid historical fiction. Beverly Swerling, widely acclaimed for her City of Dreams series, delivers a bewitching and epic story of a historian and a monk, half a millennium apart, whose destinies are on a collision course.

Viking Adult | April 4, 2013 | 416 pages

My Review

4 Stars

When architectural historian Annie Kendall is employed by the Shalom Foundation to locate missing pieces of ancient Judiaca believed to be in London, she hopes the job opportunity will help to both kick-start her fledgling career and get her life back on track.  Almost from the moment of her arrival in London, however, Annie comes to realize that she may be in for more than she bargained for as the flat she has sublet at Bristol House is also home to the ghost of a 16th century Carthusian monk.  Annie recognizes that rather than meaning to harm or frighten her the ghost is trying to tell her something, only she is not sure what.  Joining forces with Annie is investigative reporter Geoff Harris, who is determined to find concrete evidence showing that there is much more to the Shalom Foundation and its chairman, Philip Weinraub, than meets the eye.  Complimenting Annie and Geoff's 21st century narrative is the 16th century narrative of Dom Justin, the Carthusian monk who has been haunting Bristol House, and the Jew of Holborn, a London goldsmith who must keep his religion hidden.  The historical narrative helps to shed light on the origins of Annie's quest, as well as highlights the religious upheavals that defined Henry VIII's later reign. 

Although a dual-time narrative, the focus of Bristol House is largely on the present-day storyline.  This narrative is fast-paced, engaging and held my interest throughout. While I'm generally not a fan of the inclusion of supernatural elements in an otherwise non-supernatural book, I think Swerling has done a nice job of incorporating the ghost of Dom Justin into the story, as it never felt forced or implausible.  Given Annie and Geoff's storyline comprises the bulk of the novel, it is not surprising that their characters are much better developed than those featured in the historical narrative.  I took to Geoff's character right away, but despite Annie's character being well-fleshed out, I initially found her difficult to relate to.  As a result, it wasn't until close to the end of the novel that I started to like her and her budding relationship with Geoff.  The supporting characters in this novel are superb, especially Geoff's mother, Maggie, and their family friend, Rabbi Cohen.  I would love to read a novel featuring Maggie and Rabbi Cohen in their younger years.   

While I enjoyed the modern-day narrative tremendously, I wasn't quite as enthusiastic about the historical storyline.   I found the early parts of this narrative to be rather slow and the characters to be a little flat.  The narrative does pick up once the Jew of Holborn starts making more regular appearances, and at this point the historical component becomes much more interesting.   It is also at this point of the novel that the linkages to the modern-day storyline become apparent.  I also enjoyed how Swerling links Thomas Cromwell into the story, although I would have preferred to see this aspect of the narrative further developed.    

Overall, Bristol House is an entertaining novel that is sure to appeal to fans of both modern-day thrillers and historical fiction.  Bristol House is the first of Beverly Swerling's novels that I've had the pleasure of reading and I'm looking forward to reading her earlier books.  

Note: I received a copy of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.