Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 6 August 2015
Robert Parry’s “The Arrow Chest” was the best novel I read in 2012. I had enjoyed his previous book, “The Virgin and the Crab”, which tells a story of Elizabeth I, and the famous astrologer, John Dee. So I was expecting this book to be a good read, but it far exceeded my expectations; itwas truly riveting.
The Arrow Chest is the story of Amos Roseli, a painter belonging to the pre-Raphaelite movement, and his friend, and life long muse, Daphne, with whom Amos have long been in love, but she is now married to the powerful and wealthy industrialist Oliver Ramsey. But is all-well in the union? Weaved into this is Amos’s trusty and kind housekeeper, Beth, and Ramsey’s rat faced odious friend Gerald, and then the spectres of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII, and the poet, Thomas Wyatt, and also Alfred Lord Tennyson.
The story opens in 1876, where the middle class but struggling Amos, takes a commission from Dr. Murry, to produce a likeness of some bones unearthed during the restoration work of the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula within the precincts of the Tower of London. The bones are thought to be those of the executed queen, Anne Boleyn, and as he sketches, he listens to the story of one of the yeoman, about the queen’s rise and fall, and her presence within the fortress, which, it is said, can still be felt.
This sets off a chain of events, as Amos takes up his commission to paint Ramsey’s portrait, which is truly a poetic roller coaster. I found myself addicted to each chapter, until I had devoured the book in no time, impressed by both its originality, and how it takes a concept that could have so easily become twee and cheesy, and make it a haunting, satisfying story.
It’s full of tension, but never melodrama, and the characters are absorbing, and cleverly fleshed out. There’s also a lot of wit.
Parry is an excellent novelist, his prose is snappy and engaging, whilst also managing to evoke the gas light Victorian landscapes of London, the lush countryside of Kent, and the attractiveness of the Isle of White, with the finesse and sumptuousness that characterises the pre-Raphaelite movement, but with words. He seems to be able to write in ways that are evocative of his subject, so you are really engrossed in the story. He also cleverly uses the Victorian interest in spiritualism and divination, albeit only in small parts, so it’s not a silly plot device, but a humanising factor.
As a novel, it mixes elements of period fiction, neo-Victoriana, with splashes of ghost stories and historical fiction, but defies the clichés of the latter two genres that are sadly becoming to define them in modern publication. For this reason, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I cannot see anyone, if you like a good story, not enjoying. But I am biased, Mr. Parry is one of my favourite authors.
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