They say it's a good book that improves with repeated reading, but is a book effective if it takes more than one reading to understand it? That's the question I am left with after reading – and re-reading – this medieval tale of enchanted love.
Memories of the Heart opens with a note from the author about the Anarchy, the period of English history from 1139 to 1153, during which Stephen of Blois and Matilda, the nephew and the daughter of Henry I of England, vied for the throne of England. It's an excellent introduction: clear, concise, helpful. The story itself is a marked contrast. The author's baroque style of writing makes her narrative very difficult to follow, and because her prose is so impenetrable, her characters' identities are overwhelmed rather than illuminated by it.
Ceridwen, a Welsh villager, asks her grandmother, the village wise-woman, to help her with a spell that will cause the wounded Earl of Westbourne, Lord Taliesan, to fall in love with her. Although he is above her in station, she feels that this is her only chance to experience love – even if it's illusory. Against her better judgment, the grandmother agrees. Ceri nurses Lord Tal and succumbs to seduction at his hands.
Taliesan returns to his castle, forgetting Ceridwen as he travels beyond the reach of the grandmother's magic. Ceri, refusing to endure this loss, follows in his wake under the guidance of a mysterious fellow-villager named Lloyd. Accepting work as a serving maid in order to earn her keep, Ceri attempts to bring herself once more to the notice of Lord Tal.
During Ceri's sojourn at the castle, Taliesan's betrothed arrives, as does a scheming former lover. The families of each of these women have something to gain from Tal's allegiance – or from his death. As the story unfolds, treachery threatens from even the most innocent-looking source and Ceri becomes suspect even as she succeeds in gaining Tal's amorous attention again, without the aid of potions.
Although the writing in this book is overdone, the characters needed a bit more time in the oven. Ceridwen is portrayed as a lovely young girl who is pure, naive, loyal and courageous. In a time when survival was a full time job and guaranteed to no-one, she is shown to be mainly preoccupied with having a doomed affair with an unattainable man. Even though she is supposed to be her grandmother's apprentice in the healing arts, we are given no evidence of any use of these abilities prior to her encounter with Lord Tal.
If this story is intended to be a kind of fairy tale, Ceridwen is surely brought to life by the prince's (or earl's) kiss. Her entire developmental journey takes place in response to this chance encounter with a man. She uproots herself from her village, travels to a strange land, enters into servitude, is humiliated by rivals, endures suspicion and disrespect only to rise above all of it through courageous loyalty and self-sacrifice. Her goodness at the castle extends even to befriending the young girl intended to be Tal's bride, and it is her clever plan that is instrumental in defeating Tal's enemies.
As for the hero, he is handsome, brave, nurturing of subordinates, implacable with enemies, and unfailingly courteous to even the least deserving of women. He respects and honors his mother. When he first seduces Ceri under the influence of magic, he intends to marry her – just as soon as he can make arrangements to get rid of the pesky betrothal he has already agreed to. But when he succumbs to Ceri's charms again at the castle, neither the knowledge of the harm his attention will do to her reputation, nor the presence of his betrothed, serve to deter him... though he does feel guilty. He is wise and just, yet he tolerates a villainous captain of the guard and is easily manipulated by his mother and the scheming ex-mistress. It must be his sensitivity that makes him so vulnerable.
During the course of the book, the author does a couple of things to distraction: convoluted syntax, excessive modification of nouns and verbs, and the use of archaic sounding words that, while possibly authentic, begin to grate when employed to excess. ("Leastways" they did for me...)
And the confusing narrative is not helped by the author's choice to begin in the middle of a scene and fill in the back story on the fly. Facts and characters appear in the river of words, unanchored by previous introduction, and float unrecognized past the reader. When I went back over the beginning, after I had finished the book, it made a great deal more sense – but isn't that a bit much to ask of a reader?
In sum, the story is too trite, the characters too flat, the language excessively ornate. And yet...somehow, in the midst of all this, the author manages to convey a truly medieval flavor. Particularly in the castle scenes, the author portrays the endless work and constant discomfort of medieval life in such a way that I was reminded of Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael stories, set in the same time period and dramatized so well on the PBS Mystery series. Marylyle Rogers, in spite of her apparent determination to create a mystical fairy tale, avoids one of the principal flaws of many historical romances: overly romanticizing everyday life in a difficult, dirty, and dangerous time.
Although I would not recommend Memories of the Heart, I believe the author has a feeling for the time period that might enable her to produce an interesting medieval romance if she spent less effort on mystical-sounding prose, and more on history and characterization.