Saturday, 10 January 2009

K M Peyton: No Turning Back

No Turning Back
Usborne
£5.99




No Turning Back is the sequel to Minna's Quest, the first book in K M Peyton's trilogy set in Roman Britain. When we last saw Minna, she had just saved her settlement, Othona, after a brave ride over the sea to Camulodonum to summon help. No Turning Back picks up the action when Minna's love, Theo the centurion, is about to receive his next posting and move away from Othona. Minna is distraught: she does not want to stay in Othona and marry, but to follow Theo.


This is not a bad book: as ever, K M Peyton tells a good story, but it is a deeply frustrating one. One of the reasons I like K M Peyton is the spiky independence of her characters. So what does Minna do when Theo is sent to Camulodonum? Runs off after him. I suppose that you could interpret this as her independence - her other option is to stay at home and marry, but I find it incredibly frustrating that everything Minna does is seen in terms of Theo. He's sent to Camulodonum, so that's where she goes. He goes north, so she does too.


This is as unlike Ruth in Fly-by-Night, and Tessa in Blind Beauty as you can imagine. Well is it, I thought, because this is an historical novel, and Minna is governed by what was acceptable? Are her options so limited that the only thing she can do is run round after a man? Well if that were true, surely K M Peyton wouldn't have her heroine in Greater Gains, Clara, which is set in the early 19th century, marrying someone else despite her love for Prosper Mayes.


I wonder if it is because K M Peyton has set herself the task of writing a straightforward romantic tale. However much she might want Minna to racket off with Stuf beachcombing when Theo goes to Camulodonum, it won't set teenage hearts a-fluttering so Minna must Follow Her Man.


This does lead to the book's two main awkwardnesses: the way Minna's entire story is seen in terms of what someone else: Theo, does, and the frustrating appearance and disappearance of more interesting characters. It's as if K M Peyton cannot stop herself creating genuinely attractive and interesting characters like Cerdic, Minna's brother, and Stuf, the beachcomber, but in order to stop them intefering with the romantic tenor of the story, these more interesting characters are ruthlessly shoved out of the way.


Cerdic is relegated to just a few mentions. He has joined the army and is all but invisible. However, the maverick Stuf has now appeared. He is a beachcomber, living on his wits and outside the normal bounds of society. When he appeared early on in the book I was seized with the hope that he would be the ingredient to give the book the spark it so badly needs, but no. After Minna runs off to be near Theo, we don't see him again until the end.
I can only hope he and Cerdic, who are also on their way north, are allowed out to do their worst in the third book.


I suppose it's the sight of someone so utterly in thrall to a man that I don't like. Couldn't she, I thought, actually stay and fight within the conventions, as Clara does in Greater Gains? She doesn't boot off to India after Prosper goes there; she stays and works on the farm, and makes what appears to be a conventional marriage, and the book is all the more powerful for showing this capable and independent woman choosing to live within her society's conventions but never actually losing the things that make her so fiery and attractive.


I don't actually like the thought of my daughter reading No Turning Back because I don't want her to think that what Minna does is actually OK - to spend your entire waking life governed with an obsession with someone else, and to bend your every waking thought and behaviour to it. Yes, Minna might have thrown off the slavery of doing what's expected of her, but she's embrace another wholeheartedly.

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