Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn

Title: The Confession of Katherine Howard
Author: Suzannah Dunn
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 2011
Pages: 320

Rating: 3 out of 10

This brief story recounts portions of Katherine Howard's girlhood, as well as her days as queen and her disastrous fate. It is told from the viewpoint of Cat, a naive girl who grew up with Katherine and now serves as her lady in waiting.

The book starts out ominously:
"I was thinking... this is who we are: the perfect queen and her faithful retinue. Now, I wish I could go back, patter over the lavish carpets to tap us on the shoulders, whisper in our ears and get us out alive." (page 4)
I found this to be a good example of Dunn's writing. Almost well written, but not quite. The potential is there, but an amateur quality remains. In actuality, the above sentence is relatively flattering, being more eloquent than most others in the book, but it still doesn't exactly fit. First of all, Cat never views Katherine as "the perfect queen," and with good reason. And who in the world "patters" over carpets?? I suppose next will be carpeted tap-dancing.

Worse than people's shoes tapping on carpets is the modern style of Dunn's writing. There is a whole lot of sex talk between the girls, and while I don't doubt that girls of any time period are capable of being curious, their wishful conversations sounded just a bit too unrealistic.

Something that greatly annoyed me was that the main character Cat is so drastically overlooked. She remained definitively faceless and without personality for the entire story. Coming into the book, I didn't read the back cover, and I had been assuming that Katherine Howard would be the narrator. When it became clear that the story was being told by someone else, I kept thinking that on the next page, this person would introduce herself and reveal her identity. But she didn't until about page 50!
Her name is never, ever mentioned until quite far in, and we have to guess for ourselves that she is the queen's lady in waiting or maid or something of that nature.
I got a strong impression that the author expected readers to just know that our main character was "Cat Tilney, ladies maid" from the description on the back cover. And absolutely no book should rely on that, in my opinion.

In the same way of forgetting to mention her own main character's name, Suzannah Dunn fails to mention or feature a lot of other things, too.
Before Cat and Katherine come to court, they appear to enjoy gossiping about the latest royal news with their friends. As girls, they hear about the queen being taken away and replaced by a new one, who is later beheaded.
Of course, I know who they are talking about - Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Later, they converse about Anne of Cleves as well. But it struck me as very strange that they would never once mention any names. Anne Boleyn's name is not featured once in the entirety of the novel, and neither are any other of Katherine's many predecessors.
Katherine's affair with Thomas Culpepper is mentioned often, but we never actually "see" him. He is mentioned, but never featured in any scenes, turning him into just a name of some guy.
The words "London" and "England" seem to be avoided. Absolutely no sense of setting is given whatsoever, which is always a major negative point for me, especially with historical fiction, and especially with historical fiction that deals with royalty. Kings and queens are ingrained so deeply in their countries and their cultures, a writer ought to find it impossible not to mention them.
I can't fathom why the author seemed to go out of her way to avoid specific names and titles, but it certainly didn't do any favors for the story.

Before this one, the only other book that I had read that prominently focused on Katherine Howard was Philippa Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance. Though I know that Gregory is not exactly known for her accuracy, I have to say that that book is leagues better than this one.
I also felt that Gregory's Katherine was much more believable and probable: a beautiful, flirtatious, silly girl who is ignorant and not all that intelligent.
Here, Dunn's Katherine is described as not being all that pretty or charming. She seems a grim, flinty girl who is wise beyond her years, mysterious, and ever so solemn - a stark opposite of Gregory's version.
But it doesn't seem to fit the history - Henry VIII had just left the plain, solemn Anne of Cleves looking for something more entertaining, and chose Katherine. Why would he choose another ugly girl with a grey personality? And why would a wise, cunningly intelligent girl make herself so easy to trap by continuing an affair with the king's favorite? Perhaps this could be excused if Katherine was written as being desperately in love with Thomas, but she wasn't. Katherine struck me as an un-feeling, passionless girl.
So, the entire persona of Katherine didn't ever seem right to me, always a bit off.

After the culmination of events with Katherine being investigated, the book ends rather suddenly. It would be easy for a reader not educated on the events to miss the fact that Katherine was actually executed.
The historical note at the end focuses far more on the executions of Francis Dereham and Thomas Culpepper, for some reason.

Since I have now said so many negative things about the book, I am trying to think of a positive one.
I suppose that I did like how I finished reflecting to myself how unlikely a contestant Katherine was for the throne. Unlike her cousin Anne Boleyn, she was never groomed and pushed to catch the court's eye, and grew up as practically a commoner. As she talks about news, faraway at court, she obviously doesn't see herself ever becoming one of those people she hears about.

The book wasn't actually quite so terrible as my review probably makes it sound. It was easy to read, and moved at a quick enough pace (though it did get bogged down whenever there was a flashback to girlhood days). It was definitely below average, but I didn't hate it.

The Confession of Katherine Howard was a book that I simply didn't have strong feelings for either way - though if I did, they would be more likely to lean toward negativity. Don't expect any of the characters to have strong identities, or the events any gravity, either. Like the vapid main character, this was a dry book vacant of personality.