The Arrow Chest by Robert Parry

  • Paperback: 342 pages
  • Publisher: Createspace (19 Jan 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1456537164
  • ISBN-13: 978-1456537166
  • Source: Review copy from the author
When Robert Parry emailed me asking if I would like a copy of his book to review I accepted it, partly because it’s historical fiction, which I like, and partly because of its connection with Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII.

Here is the description from the back of the book:

London, 1876. The painter Amos Roselli is in love with his life-long friend and model, the beautiful Daphne – and she with him – until one day she is discovered by another man, a powerful and wealthy industrialist. What will happen when Daphne realises she has sacrificed her happiness to a loveless marriage? What will happen when the artist realises he has lost his most cherished source of inspiration? And how will they negotiate the ever-increasing frequency of strange and bizarre events that seem to be driving them inexorably towards self-destruction. Here, amid the extravagant Neo-Gothic culture of Victorian England, the iconic poem ‘˜The Lady of Shalott’ blends with mysterious and ghostly glimpses of Tudor history.
Romantic, atmospheric and deeply dark.

It begins with the discovery of the remains of a skeleton in an arrow chest in the Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula at the Tower of London. The head was separate from the rest of the skeleton and it is thought to be the remains of Anne Boleyn.  Amos is asked to sketch them before they are removed.From then onwards the story shifts to Amos and his love for Daphne, now married unhappily to Oliver Ramsey, Lord Bowlend, a wealthy industrialist. Oliver commissions Amos to paint first his portrait and then Daphne’s. This is when the parallels between Daphne and Anne Boleyn begin to surface – Oliver wants an heir and Daphne seems unable to supply one, he becomes increasingly overweight, domineering and a womaniser. Amos is in torment.

Then there is Beth, Amos’s young maid, who grows in both years and strength of character throughout the book. Amos becomes increasingly dependent on her in his daily life and they develop an unconventional (for the times) friendship.

The scene moves from London to the Isle of Wight, where the tension and drama steadily mount. I found this book in some respects to be frustrating, because it’s written in the present tense and I found it a bit distracting as the characters’ thoughts and emotions surfaced. And at times the writing is so full of description, which even though it’s beautifully done, slowed down the action for me, which is why I’ve rated it 3.5. But I loved it for its depiction of Victorian life and manners, its details of painting and poetry and its great sense of location and clearly defined characters. There is also a whiff of the supernatural. And there is a cameo part for Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his poem The Lady of Shalott, which I enjoyed. Here is Tennyson when he meets Amos, out walking on the downs:

… advancing towards him from a lane leading up through a fir copse in the lee of the hills, there comes a most peculiar-looking elderly gentleman. Dressed in a long cloak and with an improbably large broad-brimmed hat, like something one might behold on the London stage, he walks erratically with big, bold steps, his head bowed forward as if muttering to himself.

There is an irritable exchange when Amos explains he is not a tourist, but a painter  which ends abruptly:

‘Oh, a painter, eh!’ he exclaims, his eyes squinting somewhat as if struggling to see what exactly such a creature might look like. ‘Well, we’ve got far to many of those as it is, young man. Tourists, and painters and poets. Two-a-penny here. You’d do much better in Bath or Brighton or somewhere like that, and so Good Day to you, Sir!’ (page 110)

This is not a book to read quickly, but one to ponder taking in all the detail and maybe even, a book to re-read, now that I know the story, without feeling the need to rush through it.

As well as his website, Robert Parry also has a blog, Endymion at Night.

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