A Secret Alchemy
Emma Darwin
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Buy *A Secret Alchemy* by Emma Darwin online

A Secret Alchemy
Emma Darwin
448 pages
June 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Historian Una Pryor travels to London to research the lives and writings of Antony and Elizabeth Woodville. Her ultimate desire is to make Elizabeth and Antony breathe so she can tell us something about them, and also Edward IV, who seized the throne from Henry VI, along with the machinations of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who usurped the throne from the royal couple’s two young princes.

But Una is also on a very personal mission. Desperate for something to hold onto, something that won’t remind her of her husband, Adam, who died of cancer back in Sydney, Una has ostensibly come to England to sign-off on her long-dead English life. Given the task of selling The Chantry, the family’s ancestral home, the trip is also a chance for Una to reconnect with her family, her Uncle Gareth, her older sister, Izzy, and her brother, Lionel.

As the fog of a missing Adam fills her head, hanging between her and everything else, Una aches to sign away all that was once important to her and go home. The Chantry, the home of the family printing business, Solmani Press, is now cared for by the aging Uncle Gareth. Recently this once-thriving business has been beset with tough financial times, and the house now reeks of the dry office smell of dusty files and fax machines with a damp underlay of mildew.

While Izzy is determined that the family archive will be safe in a university library in San Diego, the possibility of rescue comes when the handsome Mark, who once lived with the family, suggests creating an appeal to put the estate in a type of national trust. Something inside Una stirs, something small but fierce, as she finds herself pitted against her attraction to Mark, the fervent wishes of Izzy, and the needs of her Uncle Gareth.

As Darwin posits Una’s case for love, she tumbles us into the 15th century where affinity, allegiance, and betrayal shape the lives of Elizabeth and Anthony Woodville. Anthony, given the guardianship of the young Prince of Wales by his father-in-law, Edward, understands that he will still die, all the while prayerful and wracked with guilt that he didn’t more to protect Ned, “who is his son in all but name.” When Antony’s chief terrors are realized, he spends his lonely days awaiting death aching to be reunited with Louis, his once and future lover.

Meanwhile, Antony’s sister, Elizabeth, endures a tumultuous existence, caught up in her grief and sickness, the death of her first husband, Sir John Grey of Groby, her hurried marriage to Kind Edward, and the danger of sacrificing her good name and her honor when Richard issues his final command of the blood royal and takes away her beloved “Dickon,” imprisoning him forever in the tower with his older brother.

Rich in detail, both in the period of the 15th-century and modern-day England - particularly when Mark and Una take a trip to Sheriff Hutton, Eltham Palace, Towton, the Minster, and the city of York - Darwin’s complicated, dense narrative is about the nature of memory and history. While the novel’s intricate past-future narrative structure is sometimes confusing, most notable is the author’s deftly handled integration of memory and history where history is seen as almost fleeting and as transparent and memory becomes like a scrap of gauze tossed to the wind.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Michael Leonard, 2009

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