My favourite books – “Child of the Phoenix” by Barbara Erskine

I first read this book during the summer holidays of 93.

I was undergoing the treatment for my endometriosis, hoping that I might get pregnant and the hormones I was taking left me very much on edge (one of the side effects, among some nastier ones), so we had decided on a quiet holiday by ourselves, in a somewhat secluded place, and we found that in the dam of Montargil, in the Alentejo region.

By then it was not easy to find books in English as it is today, but there was a bookshop near work where I could find some, and one day, at lunchtime, I found a thick paperback (1000 pages!) by an author I didn’t know then, called Barbara Erskine. The book looked promising: under the title “Child of the Phoenix” (then published by Fontana books) it portrayed a beautiful woman holding a pendant with a phoenix medallion and, behind her, a landscape of old buildings destroyed by fire. The back cover showed two medieval knights in their armours riding horses with some mountains in the background, featuring the following synopsis: “Child of the Phoenix is a compelling tale of love, courage, tragedy and hope; a haunting ghost story about the power of the dead to influence the living; a glorious panorama of the violent, turbulent thirteenth century”.

This combination was more than enough to make me pick the book up and never let it go! Even if it looked very appetising, I decided to leave its reading for the forthcoming holidays, as it was very big and I had the feeling it would be an “unputdownable” book – as it would prove to be. And so, as my holiday started, I began to read the book, and it filled those long, lazy afternoons on the peaceful beaches of the dam, where quietness was only interrupted by the occasional passing of a motor boat pulling a water skier.

The books tells the story of Eleyne, a Welsh princess daughter to a Welsh chieftain and a princess of England. She is born in 1218 and goes on to live an incredible full life of more than 80 years (very unusual in those days), full of love, tragedy and adventure, first in Wales, then in England and finally in Scotland. She is married several times: first to an English earl who cherishes her but unfortunately leaves her a very young widow; then she is forced into marriage to a man of a lower rank who brutalises her; then to a Scots noble whom she does not love; and finally to a Scottish earl 20 years her junior. She has several children of all these marriages. But her great love is none of her husbands, but Alexander, the Scottish king, who goes on loving her even after he has died and remains linked to her through the medallion with a phoenix pendant that will never release her from his influence.

Through the book’s pages I was transported to the incredible turmoil of Scotland and England in the 13th century; to stories of witchcraft and ghosts; to great passions and great tragedies; and, always present, the will of an indomitable woman who, in an age where women were little more than assets to men, wanted to live life her own way, and achieved it.

As days went by I was more and more engrossed in the story and hundreds of pages went by without my noticing so. As I was approaching the last chapters I wanted to stop: there was no way I wanted to finish reading this incredible book! And, when I did, it was a feeling of loss. I had spent many happy hours time travelling to the past with Eleyne; a medieval feminist if ever was one!

In a final “Author’s note”, Barbara Erskine tells us “the story of Eleyne of Mar is the result of a pilgrimage deep into the remote archives of my family…” She believes Eleyne might have been an ancestor of hers and, of course, she then went on to build a unique character – the Eleyne of the book, who will leave no one indifferent. By the end of the story we are completely enthralled by her.

No need to say, I was also enthralled by the author and soon I was ordering her two other books at the time “Lady of Hay” and “Kingdom of Shadows”, which I read some months later. They are also beautiful, exciting, “unputdownable” books, linking stories of the present to those of the past, and always including a mysterious, fantastic dimension so characteristic of Barbara Erskine’s writing. She joins reality with the supernatural in a superb way and each of her books is a delight.

I’m happy to say I’ve read all of Barbara’s books ever since. She releases a new book every two years and I anxiously look for the new title in Amazon. Her next book will be “Sleeper’s Castle” and it will be released on the 30th of June. I know I will be ordering it on the 1st of July! And I truly look forward to reading it during the holidays, as I did with her last one (“The Darkest Hour”) two years ago. And what absolute delight, when I open the first page of her latest book and start reading, absorbing every word, every sentence, every page…exactly the same feeling I had on those afternoons on the beach of the dam of Montargil so many years ago.

It feels so good to know that some things in life never change. One of them is definitely the pleasure of reading the beautiful, mysterious stories by Barbara Erskine, one of my very favourite authors.