Friday, 10 October 2014

The Bitter Trade, by Piers Alexander

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What We Thought: Calumny Spinks, of ginger hair and peppery wits, finds himself in more than one wrong place at the right time. That time is 1688, when England has been through reformation, civil war, restoration and renaissance, only to face the threat of invasion. Not that seventeen-year-old Spinks is concerned. He’s just a small droplet, trying to learn a trade and survive.

After what happens to his mother, he and his father flee to London, where the past is never far behind. Secrets seep out and alliances ripple across wider pools. No man can be an island, especially where the rivers converge. Small droplet he may be, but nevertheless Calumny Spinks is part of the flow.

The Bitter Trade refers both to the produce of the coffee houses, and the commerce and politicking conducted therein. This is an epic adventure, full of pungent period detail, a Dickensian cast of vibrant characters, plus a complex and brilliantly conceived plot which makes your head spin. 17th century London comes fully to life, with all its triumphs and inequalities, colour, texture and structure. One of those worlds you absorb so wholly, you itch to return.

The language deserves a special mention. This is a beautifully written story, a master class in voice, character and description. So many lines stopped me in my tracks to just admire the craftsmanship of this prose.

You’ll like this if you enjoyed: Perfume by Patrick Suskind, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, Pure by Andrew Miller, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

Avoid if you dislike: The realities and compromises of life in London; sex, politics, violence and double-crossers.

Ideal accompaniments: Eat a bowl filled with nuts, chopped beef jerky, pickled onions, Bombay mix, grapes and wasabi peas to constantly surprise the palate. Drink a pint of London Pride with a gin chaser. Listen to Britten’s Phantasy Quartet.

Genre: Historical fiction, literary fiction

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