Friday, December 9, 2016

The Bishop's Girl

Title:  The Bishop's Girl
Author:  Rebecca Burns
Publication Information:  Odyssey Books. 2016. 416 pages.
ISBN:  1922200646 / 978-1922200648

Book Source:  I received this book from the author free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The old woman who kept the priest's house had told them that he was away at Amiens, seeing to those still recovering, so the men who stole into his churchyard worked quickly but without fear of discovery."

Favorite Quote:  "Be true to what you want to do. Don't be constrained by the perceptions of other people."

Who was the Bishop's girl? Remains of a young woman are found in Bishop Anthony Shacklock's graves. Many have tried but failed to identify the young woman. Who was she? How did she die? What was the relationship between her and the bishop? Why was she given a nameless burial in his grave?

The answers to these questions are the crux of this book. The book comes at the questions in different ways. It tells the story of Jess, wife to Alec, mother to Marie and James, and research assistant to Professor Waller. Professor Waller has made it his life's work to determine the identity of the young woman. As his assistant, Jess has spent countless hours researching the question. She sometimes resents the task but ultimately is caught up in giving this nameless skeleton a name, an identity, and a story.

What I so enjoy about Rebecca Burns' writing in this book is how "real" it sounds. I almost begin to research the bishop thinking that surely this book must be historical. It is not but manages to convey that feeling. Bishop Anthony Shacklock also reminds me of Ralph de Bricassart, the main character of The Thorn Birds, a memorable book I read a long time ago. This story does not have the same intensity, but these main characters are similar in what drives them. The multiple generations and the stories of the past and present take this book in a different direction.

As many books do, the book goes back and develops the story of the Bishop and the young woman. The Bishop's story travels through time and place; we meet multiple generations of women all tied to the Bishop. "His church was more important to me." This statement is at the heart of the story of The Bishop's Girl. It is the heart of the relationship of three women and one man, who was a friend, a lover, and a father. The one thing he could not or would not do was stay.

The book moves back and forth between past and present as books with this type of structure do. The first half of the book is primarily Jess's story with glimmers of the other as Jess's research progresses. Jess's story is a modern day one with jobs, husband, kids, friends, and dreams of the path not taken. The second half of the book is more the story of the past. Interestingly, the story of the past set in the 1800s parallels Jess's story. The specifics are of course dependent on the time period, but the story of Constance, Allegra, and Violet also is one about choices, societal norms, and the pull of family.

The common threads between the past and the present become the idea of family, fidelity, and priorities. Because it comes first, at times, it is unclear why Jess's story goes the way it does, but these common themes ultimately join the stories of all the women in this book. "When you have a family, your life is no longer black and white." This statement holds true for the women past and present and influences the choices they make and makes this book memorable.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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