Philippa Gregory begins her new series on the Plantagenets and the Cousins’ War (War of the Roses) with The White Queen, which explores the life of Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is its narration: it’s told entirely in the present tense, as a first-person account from Elizabeth’s point of view. I was wary for the first few pages, wondering whether I could read an entire novel written in the present tense, but I have to say that it really works. The present tense gives the narrative a sense of relentless drive, as events unfold before our very eyes. It’s also reminiscent of how history books are written, which helps ground the reader in the factual elements of the novel.
It’s also interesting to be so intimately involved in Elizabeth’s life, from her perspective, as she faces an uncertain future. The only time this technique fails is during the two or three episodes where the point of view inexplicably shifts to a battlefield, away from Elizabeth; the events are still in the present tense, but the story here feels disembodied without a clear narrator.
The other element I wanted to mention, and one which might frustrate readers expecting a completely factual account, is the strong insistence on myth and magic as decisive factors in Elizabeth’s triumphs and sorrows. Elizabeth constantly alludes to her family’s ancestor, the water goddess Melusina, and she and her mother cast spells and curses that seem to influence decisive moments in the actual events of her reign. I was fine with this, because the book is after all a novel, and not a biography. But readers anticipating a reliable historical account should know that Gregory brings into play many unproven theories concerning the motives and fates of some of the characters (especially the fate of the two princes). For me, the uncertainty and speculation made for a fascinating and dramatic read, even as I kept the distinction between fact and hypothesis in the back of my mind.
Marisa Antonaya is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Literature at McGill University. She also does some freelance writing (mainly book reviews, but also articles on e-reading and content management software), at Suite 101 – http://www.suite101.com/writer_articles.cfm/bookdoctor.