This is my review of The Brethren (Fortunes of France 1) by Robert Merle.
This opening novel in a thirteen part saga of the Huguenot de Siorac family during an unsettled period of French history starting in 1547 has at last been translated into English as “The Brethren”. “Fortune de France” is best read in its original language, if possible, since it conveys more of a sense of the period, of the personalities of the key characters and the alternating humour and pathos of the chain of incidents. By contrast, the English translation which I used to check a few points appears to be a rather wooden literal translation.
The story is told by Pierre, a sometimes hot-blooded but perceptive and questioning narrator. At first, I was a little bored by what seemed like a dry beginning, and thought I would prefer to read a straightforward history of a period which I have never quite grasped: the French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and equally intolerant Protestants.
Quite soon, I became intrigued by the main characters: the contrast between the serious, puritanical Sauveterre, and his more charismatic “blood-brother” Siorac, spontaneous, often generous, yet capricious with a capacity for great inconsistency and callousness. A doctor by training, he risks his life saving his bastard child Samson from a plague-ridden village, only to introduce him into his household as his son, regardless of the feelings of his long-suffering wife. When “the brethren” feel prepared to risk declaring their protestant faith, Siorac tries to get all his children and servants on side, before cornering his wife with the command to abandon her catholic faith, although he knows that she is devoted to it.
There are some daft episodes of three musketeer bravado, but also some tense and moving scenes exploring the psychology of people with complex emotions of jealousy, rivalry, divided loyalties, duty, fear, to which we can relate even when they are bound by very different beliefs and attitudes from our own. Siorac faces the disapproval of a highly regarded doctor with his scepticism over the value of bleeding people as a cure, but when proved right does not point this out since he knows that the other man’s vanity will not let him accept the truth. There are also some interesting and convincing accounts of how the Sioracs fortified their property, related to their (remarkably few) servants and workers, and made a living from the land.
I’m not sure I feel motivated to read any more of the series, but found this a surprisingly good read – in French, but less so in English.