Visit Catherine’s Amazon Author Page (buying links)
Reviewed here: The Curiosity Cabinet, The Amber Heart, A Quiet Afternoon in the Museum of Torture.
Catherine’s other ebooks: Bird of Passage, Stained Glass, Quartz, Burns on the Solway, The Secret Commonwealth.
Some writers are story tellers, others are novelists, Catherine Czerkawska is both. She’s also a poet, a playwright and, for the purposes of disclosure, a friend. But, as I mentioned in a previous review of a book written by another friend, when it comes to reviews, my opinions aren’t coloured by anything personal. My reactions are those of a reader, not a friend.
So, in a way, it would help if this hadn’t been such a pleasure to read, but it was. It also happens to be set in a part of the world I love. I don’t know the actual location (the island of Garve off Scotland’s north-west coast), but I know the region and have my own favourite places there. I only mention this because, in many ways, the book is about the setting as much as about its characters. As one of them says ‘The border between life and death, between the natural and the supernatural, is very thin here’, and the interweaving of two narratives, past and present, is enriched precisely by this constant awareness of the coexistence of apparent dualities which are separate but interdependent. Along with those identified by the character, there are also myths and reality, harshness and fragility, town and wilderness, Gaelic and Scotch, civilisation and… well, another form of civilisation, equally advanced but with different values. This is a bleak, windswept place surrounded by wild seas and fierce currents and yet, as another character says ‘The whole island is a flower garden’.
The stories offer yet another duality – ‘then’ and ‘now’ – one being set in the seventeenth century, the other in the present. They feature two women: Henrietta was brought here by her kidnapper, Alys is returning to a place she remembers fondly from her visits as a child. They have both come from the mainland, where each has left a son, and are gradually drawn into the magic of the island. And each is attracted to one of its men: Henrietta to Manus, the island’s chief (and, incidentally, her kidnapper), and Alys to Donal. The two love stories are tender but seem impossible. The author develops the fine nuances and shifts of each with a simplicity which looks, but isn’t, artless. ‘I would not wish to leave this place,’ says Henrietta. ‘I would not wish to leave you… I think it would break my heart to leave you.’ And Donal, comes to Alys’ room just to say, ‘Oh, my love, I could not go to sleep without a sight of your face’.
But each romance has deep lows as well as passionate highs and rather than being ‘just’ love stories, their essence derives from and is part of the fabric of the island’s mystery. As the extracts above illustrate, the rhythms, even those of the modern characters, are subtly different from our own; they belong to this other world, one which Alys begins to understand when she ‘has a sudden vision of the island, like a polished pebble: the layers one on top of the other, past, present, future, all part of some mysterious whole, or like a small planet, spinning through time. Maybe that’s the secret, she thinks. Everything matters and nothing is lost.’
These thoughts are triggered by her fascination with the cabinet of the title. It was originally made by Manus’ first wife and passed on to Henrietta. It contains keepsakes, pebbles, shells and swansdown and has the same fascination for Alys as it did for Henrietta. It, and the objects it contains, bring the two stories together. It has been on the island for some three centuries, quietly symbolising its timelessness and magical, mysterious values.
But I’m not doing the book justice. I’m making it sound like some abstract poetical musing and it’s so much more. It’s an artfully constructed example of what the novel form can do, with its two narratives throwing teasing echoes at one another as they’re pursued in alternating chapters. A desire for carrot cake in today’s Edinburgh follows hard on the baking of special Struan cakes to celebrate the island’s feast of St Micheil back in the time of Henrietta; the two stories reach their respective climaxes at the same time; the moment the past/present chapters stop alternating, the two threads are brought together by incidents involving the cabinet. And a question posed in 21st century Edinburgh is answered by a scene set in the early 1700s. Manus describes Henrietta as ‘the brown swan, the mute swan and the loveliest of swans on the lake… My bride from the sea, my treasure of treasures.’ And when Donal and Alys are together, they hear ‘the eerie sound of swans, a pair of them flying in over the bay.
‘I heard that noise in my dreams,’ she says. And he replies, ‘‘They always come back. Year after year’.
But I mustn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s also an intriguing story, with the mystery of Henrietta’s kidnap to be explained and the obstacles in the way of the two loves to be overcome. Then there’s the story that Manus’ bride came from the sea’ and the conundrum of how a young widower, after a marriage of only a couple of years, could beget four sons and a daughter.
There’s room for humour, too, in many of the exchanges. When Donal looks up and says the weather will be fine, Alys is impressed and asks whether he really can tell that by looking at the sky. ‘No,’ he says. ‘But I listened to the shipping forecast this morning.’ And Alys’ opinion of her ex-husband’s newly pregnant wife is clear from her observation that ‘she will keep the placenta in her freezer, cook it like liver with a few chopped onions and eat some of it to prevent postnatal depression’.
Sitting at the centre of it all is the curiosity cabinet, with its embroidered panels on a wooden base. The panels carry Biblical scenes of Ruth, a deliberate recollection of a woman whose actions and choices, like those of Henrietta and Alys, transcend cultural boundaries. Alys herself, when she recognises the story of Ruth, remembers her words ‘Whither thou goest I will go… Thy people shall be my people’. But as well as this direct reference to the two narratives, the cabinet also contains the ordinary, mundane objects I’ve already mentioned, all linked with past lives and loves. It encapsulates not only the treasures of the island and its people but also the explanation and meaning of the novel itself. When the story ends with the seemingly trivial event of a little boy running up with something that he’s found on the seashore, it’s a very gentle reminder of the timelessness of everything, the wholeness of communities, the importance of trivial objects which carry meanings well beyond their own value. No wonder the keepers of the cabinet, when offered ‘thousands’ for it in the past, refused. Its value goes well beyond the world of finance.
The Curiosity Cabinet is a beautiful book. Reviewed by Bill Kirton
Best book I’ve read this year.
I think I can honestly say this is the best book I have read this year, which is somewhat surprising as my reading preferences are dark crime, and this certainly didn’t fit into that category. I loved the intertwined love stories, one set in the present and the other in the seventeenth century. Alys returns to the island of Garve where she holidayed as a child, and immediately falls under its spell as well as that of Donal her childhood friend. While Henrietta is kidnapped and taken to the island against her will. Once there she also falls under the spell of the island as well as her kidnapper, Manus. There are parallels in both stories, both women are single mothers, Alys is divorced, and Henrietta is widowed. Both have a son from whom they are separated, Alys temporarily, but Henrietta permanently. There are many other parallels and sometimes it feels as if the women are mirroring each other despite the separation of centuries. The setting of the island of Garve is equally as enticing and it is not difficult to see why both women succumb to its spell. The story itself weaves a spell of its own, and the question of will she, won’t she, runs through the stories of both women. This was a great read which I would recommend to everyone, and if you don’t read it you are missing something very special. Reviewed by Chris Longmuir
Satisfying historical romance.
I’ve always loved historical romance and Curiosity Cabinet satisfies my taste for that but so much more, too. Catherine Czerkawska weaves the two strands of her stories – historical and contemporary – with an enviably deft hand, drawing the two places and time-frames with craft and beauty and making them utterly believable. As I became immersed in the watery world of the Scottish island she switched me to the bustle of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and left me thirsty for the sea again just like her character. Catherine’s characters are full blooded and convincingly realised whether they’re living in the modern world or that of the 1680s. There’s a lot of longing in these parallel stories, loss and longing, and the author is at her best in evoking the needs and wants of ordinary human emotion. Little by little, through skillful plotting, we begin to understand the relationship between the old world and the contemporary one and see that they’re not so different after all. A very enjoyable read. Reviewed by Carol McKay
The latest offering from the e-pen of Catherine Czerkawska is a story which has been a long time in the telling. Her surname attests to her Polish origins and it is into the history of her own family that she mines for the core of the narrative. A lot of people have an interest in family history – more so if they have ‘immigrant’ heritage. The desire to connect with such a past is, for most, often restricted to some dull archive search or the construction of family trees. Not for Czerkawska. She has taken elements of her family ‘history’ and used them as the backbone for her epic fiction – the tumultuous relationship across the class divide between a wealthy Polish widow and her Ukrainian farm manager.
In The Amber Heart Czerkawska has crafted an epic love story, set in Poland in the mid nineteenth century. In scale it is reminiscent of Gone With the Wind and Dr Zhivago. It’s an interesting insight into Polish history and the domestic/international disputes between Poles, Ukrainians and Austrians. Yet, while giving us an insight into a period of history and a setting few of us will have any familiarity with, it engages us as it asks us to consider the lives of ordinary people whose real stories are engulfed by the history they live through.
Shot through with shades of Wuthering Heights, passionate obsession is honestly dealt with in this novel. The main characters are flawed – selfish, jealous and inconsistent. Their attitudes to each other, to love and to sex are drawn without compromise. Czerkawska skilfully negotiates the love scenes, which are erotic but never pure ‘erotica’ – they serve the purpose of the novel rather than being placed for titillation. There is passion, brutality and deep emotion on display as we are whisked through the nineteenth century and the long lives and deaths of a panoply of characters.
The Amber Heart is a labour of love, the product of some thirty years gestation, research, rejection and evolution, and it’s a story that will captivate many readers whose interest lies in historical fiction and want something beyond bland historical romance. There is much more information and commentary available at the Amber Heart blog for those who want to delve a little deeper into the story (and the story behind the story.) I recommend a visit to this site before and after you read the novel. Reviewed by Cally Philips
Stories you will never forget.
This was one of the best books of short stories I have read for a long time. There were only three stories but they held the interest and once I started reading I was unable to stop. These were powerful stories, full of atmosphere and I felt I was right there alongside the characters. I was in the shop that had ten different kinds of cheeses, and I could smell them all, likewise the many varieties of salami. The scent of Thyme in the garden, and the smell of sulphur and mint in the great outdoors wafted in the air around me, and I could feel the heat sapping the energy out of me. My favourite story was the first one. A holiday in Italy, but this was not the Italy seen in the holiday brocures. It was a disquieting place where beauty and savagery go hand in hand, accompanied by an overall feeling of menace. I found all three stories powerful, but the first was the most powerful of all. I highly recommend this book of short stories, you won’t be disappointed. Reviewed by Chris Longmuir
Here are three gems of the genre – short stories written by someone in total control of the medium and which show that a story’s length is no measure of its depth and resonance. Their characters are real and compelling and sketched with deft, understated touches. They live in settings and atmospheres which emerge gently from and also influence their interactions. The theme that unites the stories is love, but in a much more subtle way than simply calling them `love stories’ would suggest. They’re very different, but they’re all intelligent, sensitive, very readable and leave you with a sense that their implications stretch beyond the stories themselves. I particularly liked the beautiful object which is the title and narrative focus of the second story – The Butterfly Bowl. As an object, it’s a masterpiece (I want one), but its impact as an image and a symbol of fragility, transience, beauty, nostalgia is equally powerful. It belongs in a dimension beyond the common everyday one we live in. This is how short stories should be written. Reviewed by Bill Kirton
Catherine also appears in the festival in Short Stories (Aug 17) Writers’ Pieces (Aug 16) @theFestival (Aug 14) and Focus on Drama (Aug 13) and who knows where else she may ‘pop’ up!
Visit Catherine’s Amazon Author Page (buying links)