However it announced itself, the beginning of day in Provence was a gift, celebrated in words and art for two thousand years and more. Somewhere below Lyon and north of Avignon the change was said to begin: a difference in the air above the earth where men and women walked, and looked up.
It is the quality of the light that brings fifteen-year-old Ned Marriner to Provence. More precisely, it is the latest project of his high-flying photographer father (and the absence of his mother, working in the Sudan with Medecins Sans Frontieres) that obliges Ned to leave behind his Canadian high school, temporarily, for an extended sojourn with his father's (photo-) shooting party in southern France. Despite the obvious bonuses of the situation - a private villa with a pool, a vanishingly small amount of homework, and the presence of his father's perkily cute assistant, Melanie - Ned, like any self-respecting teenager, has his (slightly sullen) doubts about the whole thing.
And that's before he finds himself smack bang in the middle of a brutal, centuries-old love triangle. Life, eh?
As the above synopsis would suggest (and as the press releases are making explicit) Guy Gavriel Kay's new novel, Ysabel (available early 2007) is something of a departure for the Canadian writer of intricately-plotted historical fantasies. It is set in the present day, and told almost entirely from a single perspective - Ned's. Correspondingly, the prose style is somewhat stripped down, though not as the previous novel Last Light of the Sun was stripped down (in pursuit of a very particular style); rather, the language is simpler, its observations and concerns more immediate and down-to-earth, than the near-operatic intensity that characterises many of Kay's earlier works. Thus we get scenes revolving around iPods and mobile phones (the latter to very amusing effect), and sentences such as:
For like the fifth time today or something he felt like crying.
The narrative, likewise, is more tightly-focused; the backstory may span the ages, but the action of the tale encompasses one small but significant area of the world, a brief period of time, and relatively few characters.
The tone, moreover, leans towards young adult (and, arguably, the more lighthearted). Ysabel is, fundamentally, Ned's story, a coming-of-age tale in which the catalyst for the first, faltering steps into adulthood just happens to be an involuntary encounter with a blood-soaked eternal rivalry for the affections of one woman, Ysabel. Well, that and, equally pressingly, a budding friendship with an appealing American student, and history geek, named Kate. Even while struggling to find his way through the potentially life-threatening situation he faces, Ned cannot help but be distracted by one of Kate's remarks:
Ned blinked. "What'd you tell her?"
"I said you looked Canadian. G'night, Ned."
Had it been the same at Pourrieres, where Ned had felt he was drowning in the slaughter? Or was this all so far off base it wasn't even funny?
And what did a Canadian look like, anyhow?
Ned is torn between the desire to be taken more seriously and allowed to act more independently, and the yawning fear of actually growing up and thus losing the securities and certainties of childhood. He is, however, not quite your average bumbling adolescent boy; as might expected of one who comes from such a talented, overachieving family (and who has clearly learned to hold his own in the banter with the three members of his father's clever young support team), Ned possesses courage and quips in respectable measure. Indeed, he can be quite entertainingly glib, at times, and his thoughts and speech bring a great deal of humour and lightness of touch to the novel (his teasing of Kate, with a feigned interest in her air-headed French roommate, Marie-Chantal, I found particularly funny). Of course, this does not stop him finding himself out of his depth, and frequently - but it does provide a valuable grounding for the quick-witted resilience he displays, even under extreme pressure.
Ysabel is also the story of Provence: throughout the ages, by accident of geography, it has been a beautiful, fertile, desirable land - and a battleground, time and again, for the same reason. As the past - various pasts - erupt into Ned's present, it becomes clear that the long, murderous saga of the love triangle is a microcosm of this land's troubled history, the inescapable ugliness attendant upon its beauty.
Ned thought about it. He remembered the round tower, only a walk from here. Guarding against an attack. People had been calling this place paradise for a long time. You fought wars for paradise.
And for a woman.
As the novel unfolds, we glean snippets of the shared past of Ysabel and her two suitors - epoch-making wars, terrible massacres, general betrayal and deception and ruthlessness - through the investigations of Ned and associates, through tense encounters with the two rivals, and through brief, occasional detours into the men's thoughts. (These PoV scenes, I think, work less well than does Ned's narration, perhaps because the need to keep certain plot elements under wraps creates an excessively elliptical, secretive air, holding the men's emotions at arm's length from the reader). On one level, none of these bloody events are wholly about the three lovers, and yet at the same time they are inextricably linked with and reflective of their struggle ("Two hundred thousand people and more had died in a single battle between these two. What was a Canadian kid against that?").
Ysabel herself, centre of the conflict, symbolises Provence: changing with each successive age into which she re-emerges, but retaining, in some essential, eternal way, the quality that makes her desirable, and desired.
They never change, the two of them. She always does, in small, telling ways. She must be rediscovered, as a consequence, each and every time. Endlessly different, endlessly loved.
This mutability of Ysabel - the way that she is, in certain respects, shaped by the way in which she is loved, and pursued, as well as by the nature of the way she is reborn each time - is signalled from early on. During one of his father's photography sessions in Aix-en-Provence, Ned discovers a sculpture in the cloister of Saint-Sauveur Cathedral: a female figure, mislabelled - as it turns out - and so worn as to be almost unidentifiable. Partly, she has been made this way by natural process:
Pale-coloured stone in morning light, almost entirely worn away. Hardly anything to be seen, as if she were a rendering of memory itself. Of what time did to men and women, however much they'd been loved.
In part, however, her image was indefinable from the outset, as Ned realises:
She had been made this way, barely carved into the stone, the features less sharply defined, meant to fade, to leave, like something lost from the beginning.
Ysabel is defined by the conflict over her - and by the truth that she will never remain, and can never be 'won'. She can only fleetingly be held, and loved - until the next round of the contest, when she will once again disappear, change, and must be re-sought once more. She is beauty at its most damaging, precarious, and utterly compelling. In this, she finds an echo in the sunset, which, as Kate observes, appears so harmlessly glorious to us now - but which in the past meant simply the fall of night, and all the fears and dangers that darkness brings.
The decision to filter almost all the action through Ned's perceptions means that the love triangle is rather less intense - and, indeed, much less the focus - than might be expected, at least for readers (like me) accustomed to Kay's heart-rending earlier novels. There are stirring declarations and charged confrontations, of course - and plenty of those lines, the ones that encapsulate, with economic but poetic clarity, both a character and his or her mythic stature:
He said [to Ysabel], in that voice men and women might follow into war and across mountain ranges and through forests and into dark, "Whatever you are. Until the sun dies and the last wind blows through the worlds. Need you ask me? Even now?"
There is less of this than I might wish for, and in some ways it is a loss. Yet the underplaying is deliberate, and effective (and affecting) in another way. The author's interest lies, for the most part, elsewhere: in the effects of these events upon Ned (and his family), and in how history - whether a private love story or the clash of warring nations, whether two and a half thousand years ago or only a generation past - can linger in landscape and memory, shaping the present. The result works on several levels. It is a (relatively) streamlined, gripping and thoroughly entertaining story - the plot is clever but simple, a sort of scavenger hunt punctuated by episodes of drama and humour, the pace one of continually escalating tension - painted with as many thematic layers as the reader cares to draw from it.
A departure, then, but a splendid and successful one. I leave you with the prologue's closing lines:
Dawn was exquisite, memorable, almost a taste, on the day a tale that had been playing out for longer than any records knew began to arc, like the curve of a hunter's bow or the arrow's flight and fall, towards what might be an ending.
1) Canadian cover image taken from the (ever-wonderful) authorised GGK site, Bright Weavings;
3) the header comes from TS Eliot's lines about ghoulish Jacobean playwright John Webster, which have stuck with me ever since I studied The Duchess of Malfi in school - and seemed appropriate, here, given the beauty/ugliness theme: "Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin".