AS I SEE IT
By Henri Loridans
SYLVIA by Bryce Courtenay
(McArthur & Company 2007)
I recently inherited a stack of books, several by authors with whom I was not familiar. Bryce Courtenay is one of these writers, and I admit this knowing that my not being acquainted with him reflects negatively on my literacy. He is Australia’s best-selling novelist. The book I read is SYLVIA, an historical novel featuring the Children’s Crusade which began in Eastern Europe in the early Thirteenth Century. Sylvia Honeyeater, the heroine of this spell-binding chronicle, is a beautiful peasant girl from near Cologne with many talents, including an astronomical IQ, an angelic voice and other mysterious gifts.
SYLVIA is filled with a bevy of other unforgettable characters: there is the Pied Piper, Nicholas the boy prophet, Doubting Dominic, Frau Sarah the Jewess and endless priests, bishops and archbishops. The book leaves no doubt as to why this period is known as the Dark Ages. The Children’s Crusade was not well documented by contemporary scribes, and the reports we do have are conflicting and sometimes preposterous. The author’s depiction of the trials and tribulations of this incredible event are probably accurate.
Courtenay combines the talents of several of my favorite writers. I find in him the ability of Cervantes to take quixotic events and weave intriguing tales with commonsense truths. Many of his phrases are artfully worded and deserve to be read slowly to savor their phraseology and syntax. I compare this talent to that of Dickens.
Then there is in Courtenay reminders of Henry Miller and Erskine Caldwell; the ability to describe the physical activities between a man and a woman in their most brutal and despicable form, and then lift these most intimate of relationships to the heights of celestial pleasure to which we all aspire. When this popular Australian treads heavily on the hierarchy of hallowed institutions, I am reminded of the philosopher Bertrand Russell.
Sylvia encounters more perils then does Pauline, and the book never drags. It is a great read.