The Turn of the Screw

Henry James

Whenever I visit an old medieval town, one of the first things I do is visiting the local church or – even better – the local cathedral. I remember myself wandering through the great cathedral of Cologne, in awe of the craftsmanship and the sacrifice that it must have taken to build these monuments of solemn beauty. So when I noticed one of my fellow Goodreads friends (thanks Marc!) noting that this was the best historical novel he had ever read, I immediatley put this book on top of my TBR list. While scanning the cover, my thoughts immediately went to Cologne cathedral and – expecting a book about the building of a cathedral, perhaps in the same line as Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth about Kingsbridge’s cathedral.

Yes … and no. Yes, this book is about a cathedral, but the cathedral, despite its symbolic centrality, serves as a backdrop to a more significant transformation: the societal shift from feudalism to capitalism. The narrative unfolds through the lives of diverse characters from various societal strata, tracing their fortunes as they ebb and flow. We see a nobleman who struggles to maintain his family’s position in the face of the emergence of a powerful bourgeoisie. A bishop’s treasurer with a shrewd understanding of politics and finance. Members of a peasant family who rise through the ranks of society by leveraging wit and determination. And did I mention the Jews? A Jewish moneylender who becomes entangled in the changing economic landscape and at the same time has to endure rabid antisemitism.

The novel is primarily set in the (not fictional!) German town of Hagenburg during the 13th and 14th centuries, a society teeming with bargains, betrayals, and conflicts and engaging the reader in the intricate dance between religion, politics, and commerce. Characters are followed during these times, often fall on hardships or even die, but all are driven by ambition and growth for their families. There is no plot, but this absence is more than compensated by its intricate narrative. As a reader, I found myself submerged in a dynamic medieval world filled with shifting power dynamics, religious tensions, and evolving social structures, which only strengthened the power of Hopkins’s storytelling.

So who is Ben Hopkins? I had never heard from him. Apparently, Ben Hopkins is a British filmmaker and screenwriter and “Cathedral” is his first novel. I can see how he has used his talents to his advantage – the characters burst forth from the pages with an extraordinary vitality. The scenery leaps to life with a cinematic vividness that beckons the reader to step into the world he crafts. Just one example where Eugenius von Zabern, the bishop’s treasurer and one of my favorite characters, explains the difficulties arising concerning the succession of the bishop:

“His grace bishop Bertold is still dying. But his body, bruised and bloated, seems in no hast to give up the ghost and so the question of his succession, which a few years past seemed to be a smooth transition neither to me or the arch deacon, gradually becomes a tiresome political struggle. Factions emerge, make their requests, join with other factions, silent pacts are made between individuals and parties, plots are whispered in the chapter house corridors and the two candidates are forced to woo the support of men like the count Von Schwanenstein who, by quirk of tradition, is indeed canon of the cathedral despite living a life of sin and disillusion.”

The quote showcases his ability to intertwine multiple elements within a single paragraph, from the physical state of Bishop Bertold’s body to the evolving political landscape surrounding his succession. Hopkins carefully constructs his sentences, layering information and insight seamlessly, drawing the reader into a world where every element contributes to the larger tapestry of the story.

“Cathedral” helped me to reassess the historical cathedrals and churches I still hope to encounter. From now on, for me these buildings will not only embody the architectural marvel, but thanks to this novel they have become repositories of stories, each stone bearing witness to the intricate tapestry of lives and ambitions. And needless to say, I will be eagerly awaiting his next novel. Perhaps he can focus on writing from now on, as I am sure a lot of readers can only anticipate with excitement the prospect of him continuing to write another novel.

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