Rose Nicolson by Scottish writer Andrew Greig is, first and foremost, a love story. But that’s a bit like saying Wolf Hall is a story of a man who gets rich. It’s also a thrilling tale of a man who gets rich, figures out where he would like to be in the world, almost gets there and then gets flung off course. And it’s an exquisitely crafted historical novel that elegantly evokes 16th century Embra while also providing a thrilling snapshot of the struggle for power over Scotland’s crown.
We first meet William Fowler stepping down Edinburgh’s cobbled High Street to make for Leith and, via a storm-tossed Sonsie Quine, then for St Andrews to take up lodging alongside the “spearing spires” of the ruined cathedral and embark on a degree in the university town. He befriends the studious but awkward Tom Nicolson in his first term and thereby meets his sister, Rose. “I was hooked by the heart,” Will recollects, “and dragged aboard most willingly.” A chance night out in an alehouse, a consequence of his burgeoning career as a trader, flings him into the path of red-headed daredevil, Walter Scott. And this relationship, as his with Rose, shape the twists and turns of his destiny.
Fowler’s destiny plays out against the struggle for control of Scotland’s throne. Catholic Queen Mary has fled Scotland to seek solace and support in France. A handful of powerful advisers jostle for influence over her heir, the “ungainly but persistent” future James I of England and James VI of Scotland, held as some sort of surety, at Stirling Castle.
Greig draws a version of the world in which political sympathy is inextricably linked to the version of god you chose to worship – the warmth of incense and seductive flicker of candlelight in the Parisian cathedrals or the austerity of the reformed Kirk. Leading Scottish minister, theologian and architect of the Reformation in Scotland, John Knox, was not long dead in 1574 but his shadow continued to stalk the streets with supporters on high alert for evidence of treason.
In amongst the shady back alleyways, clandestine meetings, skirmishes and scandalous accusations, fate is a spectral presence. Is Will Fowler’s fortune based on his wits, luck and determination or is it determined by God? Rose has her own ideas – seditious ideas that boggle Fowler’s greedily receptive mind – so his early appreciation of her eyes like the sea, turns into something more enduring.
This is an historical novel, brimming with intrigue, shady machinations and bloodshed. It’s a fascinating study of the power of doctrine to determine destiny. It’s a glorious tribute to the Scots language, brimming with words now rarely used that burst like tiny fireworks across the page. But at its heart, it’s a love story about a remarkable girl who tried, as best she could, to confound society’s expectations. An ancient and a modern story, all at the same time. Someone encourage Lynne Ramsay to get hold of the film rights?