Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Love of Stones by Tobias Hill

published 2001







There is a painting of Queen Elizabeth in Hatfield House Hertfordshire. It is called the Ermine Portrait, after the stoat which sits on the Queen’s arm. It is a political portrait in the old style, the Queen surrounded by her treasures. A show of potency to the powers across the water. In this picture the Bretheren is the brooched centrepiece of the Queen’s black jewelled skeleton

The Virgin Queen(‘s) eyes are small and quite hard, like those of the ermine poised on her sleeve. It is nearly three decades since she gained the throne, the assassins sent for her from Europe finding themselves, inexplicably, assassinated…

When Elizabeth gained it, the Three Bretheren was 150 years old. It took this time, five generations, before a woman owned the jewel.




observations: In this recent Ayelet Waldman entry, the protagonists of the book were looking for the owners and history of a precious piece of jewellery: in this one they’re looking for the jewellery.

The whole of Love of Stones is about the jewel above, clearly visible in the picture as described (though not sure about ‘skeleton’). The story starts with the commissioning of the brooch by Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy, and then mostly concentrates in two particular periods in its history: the lives of two Jewish men from Baghdad, who end up in Victorian London, and a modern-day search for the jewels by a partial narrator, Katharine Sterne.

The details – of jewellery, precious stones, goldsmithing, the creation of a crown – are fascinating, and Hill convincingly describes a kind of mania that overtakes some people who become obsessed with collecting (in the case of one character, just pearls, nothing else.)

Does the jewelled brooch really exist? Hard to tell – it doesn’t seem to exist under the name Hill gives it, though there it is in the picture.

With the two main strands of the plot, you have inklings of what is going on, and they seem to be carefully structured to echo each other. The Levy brothers sections is real historical fiction – including lots of research, a look at mudlarking and a meeting with Queen Victoria. Katherine Sterne’s part is a contemporary thriller: she is following clues, moving on, staying one step ahead of others. The main criticism of the book would be that it is hard to understand her obsession with the brooch: it is just a given that she is spending her life trying to find it, sacrificing everything to it. But we are not given any glimpse as to why.

It is an intriguing read, though I suspect a forgettable one. It’s well-written – ‘his feet were full of anger. They walked by themselves’ – and has odd moments of humour. But it is quite repetitive, the same things keep happening to the characters (they are knocked out and knocked down quite a lot), and it’s hard to care much what is happening to them, there are too many plot devices, too many roads to take. It’s 450+ pages long, and could have done with losing a third of that.

Two of the Amazon reviews give strange reasons for reading it: one is from author Sally Vickers, who says Hill gave her own Miss Garnet’s Angel a nice review, so she thought she’d return the compliment. The other is from someone who was entering a writing contest of which Hill was a judge, and who thought it might be helpful to suss him out. 

The picture is the Elizabeth I portrait from Hatfield House – the photo came from Wikimedia Commons.

More about Elizabeth I (and more pictures of her) in the entries on Lytton Strachey's book on her - click here, or on the labels below.

14 comments:

  1. Moira, I'm not sure this one is for me what with plot devices one too many and 450-plus pages. I'm trying to make an effort to read big books but it's not easy as you grow older.

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    1. I know what you mean Prashant. I am trying to clear out many of the books I have obtained over the years, and am going to be much more selective in what I choose and read. The trouble is, I've been making that resolution for many years....

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  2. Moira - Hmm... those are - erm - interesting reasons for reading a book. I was interested in the historical part of the novel as I was reading your post. Not sure how that would work juxtaposed on a more contemporary thriller. It can be effective, but it's a bit tricky. And I know what you mean about the 'repetitive' bit. I've read books like that too. Still, the context sounds interesting.

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    1. I was intrigued by those 2 reviews Margot, such funny reasons. And the book itself - well I was glad I'd read it, and I did enjoy the history in it.

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  3. Enjoy your observations as always. But think I'll stick with Hilary Mantel and Phillipa Gregory for my Tudor fix.

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    1. Both such good writers! I, too, find them very very illuminating about the period.

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  4. Moira: Modern clothing is so plain compared to the majestic gown worn by Elizabeth. The Royals of today so often look common. Kate looks wonderful in anything but how majestic she would be in an Elizabethan dress. As I read my comment it sounds so elitist. Is it wrong to wish for magnificient clothing to be worn by our leaders?

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    1. I am going to enjoy visualizing Kate wearing this dress now, I hadn't really thought about it. Perhaps secretly the Royals have costume parties where they dress up as their favourite personage from the past.

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  5. The book sounds interesting but not enough to pull me away from my piles of books. I cannot remember if I told you I have a copy of Love and Treasure. Which I purchased as soon as I finished Loot on a similar subject. Now to fit it into the reading plans. And I have to remember to look for Wolf Hall at the book sale.

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    1. I read this one as part of my clearing activities, and although it was fine, I can't even remember myself where and why I bought it....

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  6. Don't think I'd class the young Royals as "our leaders" - which is beside the point. Not one for me thanks.

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  7. Don't start me on the question of Royals - young and old. This was one of the books that has been sitting on my shelf for years: no idea where it came from or why I bought it (I need RECORDS Col). I always hope that those books will be undiscovered gems, but in this case it was fine but no better than that.

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    1. I also keep getting this author confused with Tobias Wolfe, someone I have read a couple by. I'll pick Hill up and then quickly replace them when I realise my error.

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    2. I know exactly what you mean, I have that confusion too, and there's another author called Toby Litt, and I think it quite possible that when I bought this I thought it was by one of the other two...

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