Friday, 10 April 2015

Review: Bed of Spices by Barbara Samuel (Or, Evil German Grammar vs. Medieval German Romance)

I have a big German examination at university this week and I need to master adjective endings before I sit it.  Unfortunately, adjectives in German are notoriously tricky.  Mark Twain, in his essay The Awful German Language, wrote: 
"Now observe the Adjective. Here was a case where simplicity would have been an advantage; therefore, for no other reason, the inventor of this language complicated it all he could. When we wish to speak of our "good friend or friends," in our enlightened tongue, we stick to the one form....When a German gets his hands on an adjective, he declines it, and keeps on declining it until the common sense is all declined out of it....He says, for instance: 
Nominative -- Mein guter Freund, my good friend.
Genitive -- Meines guten Freundes, of my good friend.
Dative -- Meinem guten Freund, to my good friend.
Accusative -- Meinen guten Freund, my good friend. 
N. -- Meine guten Freunde, my good friends.
G. -- Meiner guten Freunde, of my good friends.
D. -- Meinen guten Freunden, to my good friends.
A. -- Meine guten Freunde, my good friends. 
Now let the candidate for the asylum try to memorize those variations, and see how soon he will be elected....I have shown what a bother it is to decline a good (male) friend; well this is only a third of the work, for there is a variety of new distortions of the adjective to be learned when the object is feminine, and still another when the object is neuter....Difficult? -- troublesome? -- these words cannot describe it. I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective."
You can imagine how long my German practice lasted before I turned to a romance novel for solace, especially since it was Easter and if there is one thing you should not be doing over a holiday, it is German declensions. I'm pretty sure that was of of the prescriptions of Lent, right up there with not eating red meat. So I read Bed of Spices by Barbara Samuel instead and it was one of the best books I've read in ages.  As you can see from the cover below, Bed of Spices is an old school romance. When readers express nostalgia for the 'classic' romances of the 8os and 90s, I feel like this book is exactly what they are pining for. It has all the epicness we expect from historical romances from that era, but also avoids most of their pitfalls.  (Except costume anachronisms on the cover, because we all know the most important thing in old school romance covers is that the model's biceps/chest are shown off the the greatest advantage possible. And if that means having your medieval Jewish doctor wearing a torque that belongs on a Roman-era Celt, then that's okay.)

When the Black Death wipes out his university town in France, Solomon ben Jacob returns home to German-speaking Strasbourg and furthers his physican's training by helping out Helga, the local midwife and healer. Rica, the daughter of a knight, also comes to Helga for instruction, and for help with her duties as her father's hostess and chaletaine. The two are attracted to each other from their first meeting, but they both know there can be no future for them. Rica's father has betrothed her to one of his men, and even if he had not, Solomon is Jewish. To marry outside his community would cause trouble with the bigoted townsfolk, who are already looking for a scapegoat for the enroaching pestilence. Rica and Solomon's story is the kind of sweeping and poignant narrative you just don't see enough, where time passes, loved ones die, continents are traversed and characters mature before the final Happily Ever After.  

What makes it exceptional, though, is that this saga is combined with with unusually progressive depictions of gender. Many of the heroes of classic romances are Tarzanesque, both in their speech and their treatment of women. Solomon, by contrast is eloquent and erudite, as well as being respectful of Rica's autonomy. Although there is no outright villian, even those who mistreat or attempt to control the female characters are three-dimensional characters, who exhibit remorse and depth of  feeling. Rica herself is a self-possessed heroine who doesn't need to be saved over and over again, but isn't adverse to asking for help when she needs it. And it wasn't just gender that Samuel dealt with compassionately, but religion as well, and from this sprung some of the book's most interesting insights.  

Overall, Bed of Spices was a definite keeper, the kind of book that absorbs you so thoroughly that your mind keeps wandering back to it after you've finished. Previously, when people  told me that romance novels are plotless drivel with no literary value and asked why I waste my time on them when I'm "really otherwise quite intelligent" (yes, somebody said that to me), I've asked them to come back and finish the discussion after they've read a book by the likes of Joanna Bourne, Meredith Duran, Courtney Milan or Judith James.  Nobody's ever actually sought to overturn their preconceptions, of course, but I will now add Bed of Spices to my mental list of reading required before people are allowed to badmouth the genre.  

And now, meine gute Freundinnen (that's nominative feminine plural, in case you were wondering, and if there are any guys reading this then that's just tough luck), I'm off to memorise three tables worth of adjective endings.  Wish me Viel Gl√ľck!

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