Ever since we started this blog, I’ve been meaning to recommend a particular book that is a fabulous historical fiction read. About two years ago, I read Karleen Koen’s Through a Glass Darkly and became so absorbed in the lives of the characters and the story that I had to immediately run out to my nearest book store to buy the sequel.
The book is part court drama, part family saga, part romance, with a healthy helping of tragedy and economic crises. Koen follows the life of Barbara Alderley from her arranged marriage as a teen to an older aristocrat named Roger Montgeoffrey, Lord Devane, through the breaking of her naiveté and disillusionment with her privileged life, to a crippling financial blow that leads her to a new beginning across the Atlantic.
The book begins with a quote from I Corinthians 13: 11-13:
When I was a child, I spake as a child. I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
Throughout the novel, this passage is constantly reinforced and validated, running through the book as a central theme. Barbara is faced with betrayals, lies, and secrets that threaten her happiness. It is only when Barbara takes off her rose colored glasses and sees her life and the people in it for what they really are that she returns to the honesty and clarity that we possess as children. Unfortunately, Barbara has to undergo numerous tragedies to get to the place she is in at the end of the book. Without revealing too much of the plot, several people she loves are killed off all in one page, her husband is having an affair with someone who is not only French (God forbid!), but who is a man (a huge scandal in the Georgian era in which period this saga takes place), and to top it all off, she and her husband lose everything in the stock crash when the South Sea Bubble finally bursts.
I will be honest with you about Through a Glass Darkly. If you are in a melancholy mood and want to read something to cheer you up, do NOT pick up this book. It is sad, depressing at times, and does not have a satisfying ending unless you are intending to read the sequel (which is equally somber). That being said, I love Through a Glass Darkly and its sequel, Now Face to Face. They are brilliantly written, lush with detail, and full of phenomenally developed characters that have the emotional depth and animation that writers strive for. Now Face to Face continues Barbara’s journey across the Atlantic to the colony of Virginia, where she finds courage and love, while strengthening the bonds with her companions and servants who become more like family to her in a strange country fraught with dangers.
While I appreciate the sequel, I did think it was very different from Through a Glass Darkly, though not necessarily in a bad way. Somehow it felt strange, in one of those ways that is difficult to describe; all readers have experienced the feeling when reading a prequel or sequel that something is just off, but that one cannot put a finger on. I would still recommend reading both books, if not just to find out what happens to Barbara, but also because Koen’s superb writing makes it worth the read.
I highly recommend Koen in general. She is one of those writers that I think has fallen under the radar. Through a Glass Darkly is an oldie but a goodie. It may have been published in 1986 originally, but sometimes it is nice to pick up a tried and true literary adventure. Koen is one of those authors, like Margaret George, that takes a long time to turn out a new book, but takes the time to create a well-researched, immersive, and crafted piece of literature.
So, take my advice, and read one of my favorites!