The song “Fair Helen of Kirkconnel” was first recorded in the early 1800s by Walter Scott, who included some of the story behind the ballad. Andrew Grieg colors in the rest of the story with his novel, Fair Helen. Harry Langton tells us at the beginning of Fair Helen that he’s going to tell us the real story behind the ballad, the star-crossed love story, and the politics of the Scottish Borderlands at the end of the sixteenth century.
Harry is telling his version of the tale some decades later. He’s lived an itinerant, lonely life as a scholar. His best years are are behind him, Harry tells us. Then he takes us back to Annandale. His best friend, Adam Fleming, has summoned Harry back to the region to watch his back. Adam thinks someone’s been trying to kill him, because he has fallen in love with the Fair Helen Irvine.
Helen is already promise to another man, a very advantageous match. Politics is everything, Harry soon shows us. Adam’s family has been feuding with Helen’s. (There is a distinct Romeo and Juliet feel to Fair Helen.) Adam’s family is allied with another noble family, the enemy of Helen’s family’s allies. It’s complicated. Things get even more complicated when Harry reveals that he’s not in Annandale just for Adam’s sake. He’s there because the new power in the region wants to keep an eye on things and exert just a bit of influence in matters.
We know from Harry’s foreshadowing (and the ballad) that things will not end well. But I stayed because I kept hoping that Helen and Adam would somehow find a way to cheat their fates. Maybe the song got the details wrong or were embellished to make a better story. What we don’t know is who the villains really are. Is Harry’s boss really on the side of love? Do the feuding families really want peace?
The action in Fair Helen is enough of a draw, but what I really loved was the language in the book. Grieg has his narrator use Lallans—Lowland Scots. (There’s a glossary at the end of the book.) It’s disconcerting at first. Scots words often sound like they should make sense. It’s a bit like listening to “Jabberwocky.” After a while, the Lallans gives a sense of place. I loved it. Lallans is an evocative dialect and beautiful to listen to.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.