Which side is the ‘right’ side?
Clara ― Suzanna Linton
Suzanna Linton was born in South Carolina and grew up in Orangeburg County. After graduating high school, she attended Francis Marion University, where she majored in English. Linton tells of how she began writing as a child, after feeling as though she was brimming over with ideas and needed to ‘share them before they poured out of my eyes and ears’. An initial penchant for experimenting with poetry grew into a love of writing fiction. Linton currently lives in South Carolina with her husband and pet dogs. As well as writing fiction, she works in the local library. Her debut novel, Clara, was published in 2013.
Linton’s book follows the journey of Clara, a seemingly ordinary child to whom life has been anything but kind. Having being sold into slavery, Clara loses the ability to talk, her voice forced deep inside of her by the horrors she suffered at the hands of the slavers. Bought by a wealthy master, Clara falls into a dreary life working in the castle kitchens, never venturing further than the kitchen garden. She is known by no name and those around her see her as nothing more than a mute slave girl who is possibly a little slow. But, unbeknownst to those around her, Clara holds the unique ability to see into the future, a gift she has kept secret for years through fear of persecution. When a vision prompts her to prevent a murder, she finds herself catapulted into the lives of the nobility, and the centre of civil war that threatens to destroy the country. In a journey that takes her from her humble roots to the capital city itself, Clara discovers that the future of the nation depends on her and her alone.
Before I started reading Clara I knew nothing about the story other than the title. I think I expected a Jane Austen-style coming-of-age romance more than anything, so I was surprised by the way the story progressed. I like the way Linton gradually introduced the reader to the supernatural side of the novel, starting with Clara’s visions and gradually bringing in further aspects. The book is written in the style of a medieval fantasy and the world in which Clara lives is similar to that of our own with elements of fantasy thrown in. On the whole, Linton keeps the language of the characters fairly simple, drawing on medieval English and introducing new words occasionally to describe, for example, measures of time. I liked this aspect of the book, which added to feeling of it being a fantasy novel without becoming too confusing. I also enjoyed the setting that Linton created; the descriptions used were vivid, allowing the book to come to life. I particularly liked Linton’s description of the wealthy capital, Candor:
‘Every bit of trade going south to Bertrand went through Candor. Every bit of trade coming up from Bertrand went through Candor. It sat like a giant purse on a rich man’s desk, begging to be stolen.’
At its heart, Clara is indeed a coming-of-age novel, although perhaps not in the classic sense. Through the three hundred pages of the book, the reader forms a relationship with the heroine and follows her through an incredible transformation. From the very beginning, Clara’s life is hard on her; we are first introduced to the girl as a skinny child, sent to work and unable to play with the other children:
‘Clara trudged home, the sack of pots banging and clattering against her thin legs. The wind blew against her back, bringing with it the laughter and music of a festival she couldn’t attend.’
From this point, the reader follows her as she is sold into the slave trade, before becoming the pet ‘mouse’ of the lady of the castle in which she was so recently enslaved. Seldom throughout the novel does Clara seem genuinely happy, although one such moment that particularly spoke to me occurs shortly after Clara has escaped from slavery and is travelling with Emmerich and Gavin:
‘Mud and dust stained her dark red riding dress and her hair fell loose from her braid. A little dirt smudged her cheek. Fatigue slumped her shoulders but a small smile curved her face as the horses bent to eat the hay she sprinkled before them.’
Later in the book she is given many more luxuries and presented with beautiful clothing, ladies in waiting and guards to protect her, but it is never enough to make her happy. In some ways, Clara can appear as an unlikable character: she is angry and untrusting, miserable most of the time, and does not appreciate the things she is given. However, I think this makes her character all the more genuine; it is natural and very human for Clara to behave the way she does. Regardless of the gifts and luxuries Clara is given, she has within her always the desire to break free of the slave’s collar, which remains symbolically strapped round her neck until the end of the book.
As Clara becomes more and more entwined within the politics of the civil war she faces situations that challenge her allegiance, often leading her to wonder which the ‘right’ side is. Clara’s abilities render her invaluable to both armies and, as such, she is vulnerable to manipulation. Both sides hide the truth from her in one way or another, and it is left to Clara to decide for herself who she should put her trust in. Sometimes, doing what is ‘right’ can have unforeseen repercussions.
As Clara’s character develops, so too does her beauty. As a slave, it is easy to forget that Clara was once described as ‘beautiful’ by a friend of her parents; she becomes the dirty, mute slave girl with matted hair. As the mouse, she is described as ‘elfish’, before moving on to ‘pretty for a slave’. It is not until Clara begins to break free of these shackles that it becomes apparent just how beautiful she really is in the eyes of those who love her:
‘She looked up and formed a question with her large eyes and sweet mouth.’
Clara’s confusion towards the love she receives is a central theme throughout the novel. She finds it difficult to know how to feel about any of those who flatter her: can they really be trusted? Her nature makes her guarded towards any advances.
I thought it was inevitable that Clara should fall for one of the men in the book, but was very pleased that, ultimately, there is not a fairy-tale ending. Too often heroines give up on their dreams because they fall in love. Most prominently within Clara is the desire to escape, to be free, and to discover herself, and she makes the choice to put these dreams first, and perhaps to come back to love once she has discovered herself.
As with many of the books I review, I do have a couple of small gripes to add before I round off. Firstly, I feel the text could do with a professional edit as there are quite a few mistakes in the text. However, I do feel this is inevitable with a lot of self-published work, and I don’t feel that the mistakes overly detract from the story. Secondly, I feel that at some point events are perhaps drawn out a bit too far, and what could be described in a few pages takes up substantially more. I personally like to keep things concise. That said, I feel these are fairly minor details.
On the whole, I found Clara to be an enjoyable read. The storyline is entertaining and keeps you wanting to read on at the end of each chapter. I would be interested to see where the story goes next and in finding out the answers to some of the questions left hanging at the end of the book. I feel Clara would best suit a young adult audience, and fans of medieval fantasy.
All due thanks go to Suzanna Linton for providing me with a free review copy of the book.
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