Barbara Erskine’s novel LADY OF HAY, in part an historical novel about Maud (or Matilda) de Braose, who had the misfortune of living during the time of King John the Bad (1199-1216), is one of those novels with parallel plotlines.
In 1970s England, we meet 19-year-old Jo Clifford, who has an amazing ability as a subject in a regression hypnosis, when she relives the last, tortured moments of a 13th-century Norman-French woman, whose husband held a great deal of power in the Welsh Marches during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189), and his sons Richard the Lionheart (1189-1199) and King John.
The modern story then jumps 15 years, and we meet 35-year-old Jo Clifford, successful journalist, and as hard-headed as you expect a modern woman to be. She is given an assignment to investigate regression hypnosis, which is a technique that claims to access a person’s memory of a past life. Jo initially pooh-poohs the idea, until she becomes a subject herself.
At that point, the medieval story takes off.
I am not alone in finding the medieval story more compelling, primarily because the stakes are so high, giving Ms. Erskine opportunities for building a spine of tension to hold up the story arc.
The modern part of the story was not interesting. The relationship between Jo Clifford and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Nick went round, and around, and around, and while true to life, this spinning of wheels meant that many opportunities for tension were lost.
Nick’s brother Sam is cast as the mad scientist, and as a former scientist myself, I wish that Ms. Erskine had eschewed the cliches and dug deeper to have formed a more interesting character. Sam’s motivation is not clear, except that he seems to have gone quite mad for no apparent reason. My question was how did we get from the concerned young man we glimpsed in 1970, to the out-of-control sadist in 1985? No satisfactory answer is given.