Carnal Gift treads a well-worn path, but does it with enough verve that it’s an enjoyable read. Sort of like a pleasant road trip that you don’t remember a month later, but the scenery’s pretty along the way.
The setting is Ireland, 1754. The Irish are being persecuted, Catholicism is outlawed, and Brighid Ni Maelsechniall (forget it, just call her Brighid) has watched her father be taken away by the hated Sassenach. All Brighid has left are her brothers, Aidan, Fionn, and Ruaidhri. They are eking out an existence when one day they are set upon while attending the clandestine funeral Mass of an infant. The hated iarla, or earl, Lord Byerly, comes upon the little group while foxhunting, and the priest is taken away by Byerly’s men. Byerly, called Sheff, has a guest with him – Jamie Blakewell, an American. When Sheff spies Brighid and declares he’ll have her, Jamie is repulsed and insists on “claiming” her himself, as a sort of token of friendship.
Jamie, of course, has no intention of raping a young woman, but when Brighid is brought to his room, he convinces her to play the part. She shrieks, he cuts his thumb to smear blood on the sheets, and all the while Sheff is watching from a peephole. But the “act” under the sheets is convincing enough, and when Brighid awakens the next morning still a virgin, she begins to think she can trust Jamie. A little.
Jamie senses that Sheff is not the convivial friend of the past, and he knows Sheff will try to claim Brighid. So Jamie offers to take her to England, where he can make her safe. She refuses, and in the darkness of their escape, Jamie is sliced with a sword by one of Brighid’s brothers, who have come to rescue her. The three take Jamie to a remote cottage where he can heal. But Sheff is on the hunt, and in order to evade him, Jamie and Brighid will need to go on the run.
Jamie is a wealthy Virginia planter, and more than once, he offers to secure passage to the Colonies for Brighid and her family. There they will be safe from persecution and can start a new life. But no. Brighid, Fionn, and all the rest Will Never Leave Their Beloved Ireland. “Gee, thanks for the offer of a new life in a safe land, but I’d rather stay in the Emerald Isle, where I’ll either be hanged, raped, or starve to death.” ??? Even accounting for loyalty to the land of their birth, this is a plot point that didn’t seem to stand up to much scrutiny. And since the rest of the book turns on this decision, it made it just a bit hard to swallow.
Jamie and Brighid are instantly attracted to each other. She lovely and spirited; he’s handsome and gentle. Jamie, in fact, spends quite a lot of time trying to woo Brighid, bringing her gifts, and she turns him down repeatedly. Finally she gives in, and they have lots of hot sex. Sheff is now out for the ultimate revenge, and trying to keep one step ahead of him gives this book a fast pace.
Carnal Gifts felt like a throwback to the old historicals of the 1970s and 80s. The prose is lush, and the author clearly has a talented way with plot and pacing. But the book is very careful not to offend. Jamie owns a plantation, but has freed his slaves and now pays them a wage. He admires the Native Americans. He accepts Brighid’s stubbornness at face value. He is, in short, almost too good to be true.
Brighid is all passion and spitfire, the stereotypical “fiery Irish lass”, and after a while, she’s a bit wearing. We’re told she’s the mature glue holding the family together, but often she acts like the teenager she is. The last third of the books is a rollercoaster action ride, though, and the conclusion is suitably dramatic.
The author sprinkles quite a few Gaelic phrases though the book, followed by their English translations. An interesting concept, but one that didn’t quite work for me. Gaelic is exceedingly difficult to pronounce using English phonetics, and the result is the Gaelic looks like a jumble of letters carrying no meaning at all. I found myself mumbling stuff like “Nish-mill-fin-blah” trying to work it out, and eventually ended up skipping over the Gaelic altogether. I can’t blame the author for trying, though, and from the dedication, you can tell she put a lot of work into getting it right.
Pamela Clare has an interesting voice and it’s great to see an author experiment with some new techniques in her storytelling. Carnal Gifts may seem like a book you read somewhere in the past, but it’s a good enough read that you likely won’t mind.