I make no apology for mentioning yet again my very high opinion of Honno Welsh Women’s Press – every book an absolute delight to discover – and it’s a real pleasure today to share my review of their latest, God’s Children by Mabli Roberts, published today (11th April) for kindle and in paperback. My thanks to the publishers for my advance reading e-copy, and for allowing me to read and enjoy it ahead of publication.
Kate Marsden: nurse, intrepid adventurer, saviour of the lepers or devious manipulator, immoral and dishonest?
As she lies on her deathbed visited by the ghosts of her past, who should we believe, Kate or those who accuse her of duplicity? Memory is a fickle thing: recollections may be frozen in time or distorted by the mirror of wishful thinking. Kate’s own story is one of incredible achievements, illicit love affairs and desperate longing; those of her accusers paint a very different portrait – of a woman determined on fame and fortune.
The reader navigates a narrative as fractured as the Siberian ice Kate crosses in search of a cure for leprosy, and as beautiful as Rose, her lost love, as the full picture emerges of a life lived when women were not expected to break the mould.
It’s no way to start a review, but I will admit that this may well not be a book for everyone – its structure is challenging with its patchwork of memories, a dying Kate Marsden revisiting her life’s experiences – but I found it absolutely enthralling. In her acknowledgements, the author thanks the publishers for sharing her vision for the way she wanted to tell the story – it’s original and very different, but her fragmented narrative becomes as natural as breathing, setting her first person recollections against the interpretation by others of her actions and motives.
The book tells the story of her quest for a cure for leprosy – the perhaps mythical flower used by shamans in Siberia – and Kate Marsden’s extraordinary 11,000 mile journey, undertaken with the support of the Russian royal family, to visit the area and set up a hospital for the care and treatment of the sufferers. It’s a magnificent and sweeping story – travelling over frozen lakes and through impenetrable forests in a sledge, wrapped in layers of clothing, sleeping on skins in yurts along the way overrun with vermin, full of moments of extreme danger and occasional exultation.
But that account is also interspersed with other memories – her early life in England, her nursing in Bulgaria, her time in New Zealand working at Wellington Hospital and with the St John’s ambulance service, and her endless efforts to raise money to support her trip and the construction of the hospital. And there are the memories of her private life too – the one real love of her life, a story quite beautifully told, and the other alliances that cost her her reputation amid allegations of immorality and resulted both in doubts about her honesty and her ultimate ostracisation.
The writing is quite wonderful. The journey scenes are exceptionally vivid and filled with atmospheric detail, as you feel the extremes of cold, fear, discomfort and danger along with Kate’s absolute belief that all will be well as she carries out God’s will. The depiction of her relationships – particularly her time with Rose – is perfectly done, the historical context realistically portrayed, with real moments of joy, beauty and discovery.
I very much liked Kate’s clear voice – her conviction about her calling nicely balanced with her naivety about the perceptions of others. She’s not exactly an unreliable narrator, but what you read is her interpretation of events, her personal perspective: there are times that her sureness that she is in the right can make you angry, but there are those moments of absolute joy that shift you entirely into her corner and make you angry instead at those who fail to understand. The emotional touch of the story is immensely assured – the deathbed scenes, some the product of delirium, frequently moved me to tears.
This was such a special book – its reading an experience I found quite unforgettable, and one I’d highly recommend. Without question, this was one of my books of the year.
“In Kate Marsden, Mabli Roberts has created a magnificent, complex, enchanting heroine… the atmosphere is ever compelling and beautifully wrought.” Manda Scott
“A moving and memorable bringing-to-life of a historical character as fascinating for her human complexity as her adventurous deeds. A story that lingers with you long after the last page.” Felicity Aston, MBE, polar explorer
About the author
Mabli Roberts lives in a wild, mountainous part of Wales. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is now a Visiting lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Wales. Most of the inspiration for her writing comes from stomping about on the mountains being serenaded by skylarks and buzzards.