After the execution of Charles I, Dutch engineer Jan Brunt is commissioned to survey the English fenland and devise ways of draining it for crop-growing. The work, undertaken mainly by prisoners of Cromwell’s wars, threatens the ancient lifestyle of the fen dwellers; Jan falls in love with one of them, Eliza; they are sundered by events which Jan recounts years later from the Dutch colony that will become New York. Will Jan and Eliza find their way back to each other?
Conventional in structure and unsurprising in its plot trajectory, this second historical novel by Stella Tillyard yet has much to recommend it. The drainage work is conveyed in interesting detail that doesn’t become boring; the descriptions of the fen landscape where sky and water leach into one another are finely done; and the two very different characters who dominate the book are properly delineated and developed. Sometimes a traditional kind of novel can be just as satisfying a read as a whizz-bang look-at-me one, and this is such a case.