Concubines and conquerors

Winnipeg author Margaret Sweatman’s book, The Players, is not something I would recommend for my mom to read. That having been said, I loved reading this book. Half-prose, half-I-don’t-know-what, Sweatman’s writing style is absorbing, to the extent that this book could be read on public transit with little or no effort.

Lilly is a gifted girl of 16 years in the tale that is very loosely based on 17th-century historical accounts and poetry. Raised as a beer wench who doubled as a beer-parlour prostitute, she uses her first high-profile John to get a job as an actress, which allows her the promotion to King’s Mistress. After some French-Canadian influence, much talking of maps and treason, and a touch of violence, Lilly decides to board a boat for China, without really thinking things through. The first thing she should have considered is that no one in the book, except for her, is actually planning a voyage to China. In an interesting conundrum, Lilly has historically used her feminine wiles onstage and between the sheets to advance (as much as a concubine can) in society, but when she finds herself in a world without the social rules she is familiar with, and more importantly without the normal protection of the king, she tries to downplay the fact that she is a woman, alone, without any skills useful in the “real”/New World.

Reading others’ reviews about this particular novel, I found it difficult to agree with statements like author Michael Crummey’s, describing the book as being “as dark as it is funny,” when there’s no comedy to be found! It’s dark, I’d say that much, but comedy? Hmm. . .

The violence throughout this book is the main reason I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who’s squeamish (sorry, Mom), and the frequency of this violence leads one to feel not that “Oh my stars! No one is safe!” feeling of some horror movies, but rather that everyone seems astoundingly — alarmingly — blasé about it. The violence of this book, as I later realized, also happens to be a source of much of the absurdist comedy. “What’s that? A hobo with a fiddle bow rammed through his eye socket? Oh well, pass the tea,” seems to be the general reaction of the characters. A societal higher-up (I won’t say who — you’ll just have to read it!) who just so happens to be a complete and total asshole gets murdered, and people talk about it a couple times in the House of Lords, and then it’s forgotten, without investigation or punishment. His friends simply shrug and say something like “Oh well, it was bound to happen sooner or later; he was a jerk.” None of them seem to care what happened to him, even to assure themselves that it’s not some sort of serial lord-killer that might target them next time! No, no one worries about a murderer; they’re all too busy trying to not mention to a man that the self-aspiration of his frontal lobe made things awkward at dinner — and the subsequent meeting — not to mention ruining a perfectly good wig and bandage. Oh well, such is life, any biscuits left?

In a lovely contrast with the current fashion of travelling by plane, keeping all our limbs intact and not dying of scurvy, I would like to propose The Players as a breath of fresh air, loosely based on fact enough that one can feel proud for reading about the origin of our country (sort of), and engagingly-written enough that it can be read anywhere, by almost anyone. Just make sure to bring a first-aid kit.