Fact and fiction reach a lively crescendo
Scrundle: A Historical Novel
THE Scrundle is a vast musical contraption: a stupendous assemblage of bellows, pipes, hammers and strings which, when played, generates sufficient discord, volume and vibration to quell uprisings, enforce subjugation and bring on miscarriages.
This terrifying contrivance is the ‘‘ instrument’’ that conveys the action of this extraordinary debut novel from the 14th century to the present day: from the rule of Edward III and the Black Death, which wiped out about 30 per cent of the British population, to the 17th century and the dying days of the Cromwellian parliament and finally to the decrepit precinct of a near-bankrupt graduate college at Cambridge at the dawn of the 21st century.
The action rumbles steadily on, the links between the disparate historical settings kept carefully connected through a disinterested, nameless ‘‘ narrator’’, who injects himself (we assume it’s ‘‘ he’’) episodically.
The action splices three separate threads: the first, the arrival in England of the Scrundle and the recognition by rival English barons of its potential as a means to win royal favour, then the instrument’s destruction; the second, the translation in the 17th century by a young By Alison Lynde Strategic Book Publishing & Rights Co, 225pp, $16.97 scholar of a manuscript that details the existence of the by-then forgotten musical instrument; and the third, the discovery of the translated manuscript by an unscrupulous present-day academic, who realises its commercial value and seeks to cash in.
Along the way, there is murder, arson, infidelity, heresy and revolution, the constantly shifting historical backdrop of the novel. And while this is a work of historical fiction, the ‘‘ history’’ against which the braided story unfolds is strictly accurate, and researched to minute perfection. (Reading Scrundle, you’ll be scrambling to Google to track down the countless historical asides that add so many richly textured layers to this remarkable work.)
Its author, ‘‘ Alison Lynde’’, is in fact distinguished University of NSW Scientia Emeritus Professor Conal Condren, whose seminal academic publications span the intellectual history of Europe from the 14th to the 18th century. Scrundle is infused with his meticulous scholarship — and his fine satirical instinct.
Early on, for example, we meet ‘‘ Dr Clytemnestra Seathrough’’, master of the almost-defunct college, who had been ‘‘ before the operation, Dr Clement SeathroughMarten, quietly proud descendant of the notorious Henry Marten (1602-80)’’. Now, Henry Marten — for those who, like your reviewer, require the education — was a real and notorious figure in English history. He was one of the foremost among 17th-century parliamentarians calling for the execution of Charles I, and lucky he was to save his own neck after the restoration of Charles II.
Later, there’s a lively spoof of the reality TV genre when the BBC’s archeology team, Dig England, arrives at the college ‘‘ with just three days’’ to excavate its foundations.
For novel lovers with a historical bent, for those prepared to tackle a text of considerable complexity, for those with a love of language, this is a vastly rewarding read. You will find it for sale at www.sbpra.com/AlisonLynde.