Book Review and Author Interview: The Prodigal Son by Anna Belfrage

The Prodigal Son by Anna Belfrage with author interview: Learn some fun details about the characters!

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Set in 17th century Scotland during a time of religious persecution, Anna Belfrage’s The Prodigal Son opens to the departure of Matthew Graham, Alexander Peden and two others from an illegal conventicle, followed by a half a dozen soldiers seeking to arrest them. Matthew reflects on his wife Alex, a time traveller from the 21st century, and her opposition to his covert activities and the consequences they may bring upon their entire family.

Third in The Graham Saga series, the novel lays out events in the family’s past as these trials continue to haunt each member in different ways. Belfrage accomplishes this by sprinkling information throughout the story, like a flavor that satisfies as its strength increases. This provides fulfillment for the questions arising, particularly for readers unfamiliar with the first two of the series’ books, whilst ensuring a taste for more.

Though Matthew narrowly escapes the opening episode, the soldiers embark on a campaign of harassment, accosting him and searching his homestead periodically, their goal being to intimidate as much as to turn up Minister Alexander “Sandy” Peden. Complicating circumstances include the hatred of Graham’s own brother, Luke, previously responsible for having Matthew deported to the colonies and sold to indentured servitude. Between Luke and a returned Matthew is Ian, the child born to Matthew’s first marriage with Margaret (now wed to Luke), and whose paternity is debated throughout the book, though Matthew had been tricked into relinquishing all rights to the boy.

Alex, a modern woman who by necessity has adapted to life in her new time and place, slowly warms to Ian, though she fears the cost to her own eldest son. She perceives Peden to be a fanatic and scorns his belief that women are spiritually inferior. Though she admires his strength, her views of his rigidity in matters of faith clash with Matthew’s protective actions—acts that guard Peden from the authorities, but leave the Grahams wide open to total destruction.

Belfrage serves up details of this threatening aspect, too, over time, in courses that reveal frightening, hinted-at possibilities and then, finally, a shocking reality readers may have a difficult time digesting. While most are aware of religious persecution in history as well as our own era, human psychology provides a protection against such knowledge with scant, sometimes forgotten details or by placing distance between the parties.

Here the author provides no such immunity: we have grown attached to the Grahams and their children, having seen the various sides of each and been given a glimpse of their cares in the world. When tragedy strikes—for the Grahams as well as another family—its proximity sears our hearts and the reality of what people have had to endure sinks in with a terrible understanding.

Belfrage makes room, however, for humorous relief, unappreciated by the commanding officer taking part in questioning Matthew, but recognized by modern readers for the inquiry’s circumstantial nature:

One of the younger soldiers took a step forward. “He’s tall and the man we saw was tall—that we know for sure.”
“Ah,” Simon [Matthew’s attorney and brother-in-law] nodded. “And did he have dark hair?”
“I don’t know,” the young man said.
“No? Why not?”
“He was wearing a cloak.”
Simon rolled his eyes, smoothed at his coat. “Not much to go on,” he said to the officer, who shifted in his seat.
“Tall, a competent swordsman—and we know Mr. Graham has a past as a soldier—who else could it be?” the officer said.
“You?” Simon said.

The author creates believable characters who are simultaneously honest and flawed, whose imperfections, occasional obstinateness and recognition—if reluctant—for a balanced concern of the difficulties they face all bring readers to a riveted attention of where each are headed and we develop concern for their futures: we care what happens to them, and ache when all does not go well.

Matthew, for example, continually breaks his promises to Alex by time and again riding back to Peden, passionately maintaining his inability to forego his spiritual obligations. He roundly condemns the forces of Charles II for their brutality, though one exchange brings concession by default: “‘[F]or years it was people like my family that were persecuted by people from your church.’ That shut Matthew up.”

Neither is Alex spared the confrontation of brutal truths. Though through the novel she uses her “past” history lessons to remind her of events or circumstances in the time she now inhabits, it sometimes takes drastic measures for her to understand her husband’s position in more than just theory. After a brutal beating at the hands of an interrogating lieutenant, she concedes: “I sometimes forget that this is a time where the little people have no voice, where the representatives of the crown can do as they please and there’s no venue of recourse.”

As implied in the title, however, there is room for redemption, and as we witness naked fear, cruelty and tragedy, so too do we see tenderness for the precious in life, hear the stolen laughter and feel the power of two whose bonds of love will dare to fight to remain united in the face of all attempts to ruin them. Matthew and Alex’s love for one another is acted out in some explicit romantic scenes—perhaps more than many other works of historical fiction—as but one part of what makes them whole. That wholeness also confronts the truth within the extravagance of their divisions and possibilities of homecoming in more ways than one.

Where this will take the family remains to be seen in Belfrage’s newest novel in The Graham Saga, and though one could continue on to read the fourth without having experienced the first two, this reviewer predicts many will want to return to the beginning. This is not because The Prodigal Son does not work as a stand-alone novel; as stated above, Belfrage does a spectacular job of seamlessly filling in the blanks of two complete previous works. However, a feast is a difficult thing to pass up: Alex, a strong, modern woman on a 17th century learning curve, her equally resilient husband, their friends and family—-readers simply will want to know more and experience the events in their lives along with them from beginning to end.

Interview with Anna Belfrage

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Image courtesy Lisl Zlitni

The tea is steeped and cake at the ready! I’ve recently read The Prodigal Son and was utterly intrigued by the

questions–and some problematic possibilities–raised in my mind pertaining to Alex’s journey back in time.

Hello, Anna, and thanks so much for joining us today and taking the time to answer some of our questions.

And hi to you too, Lisl. I’m thrilled to be here!

The Prodigal Son, third in a series, features time travelling Alexandra Lind and her 17th century Scottish husband, Matthew Graham, living in the latter’s time and homeland. How did you first decide to bring these two characters together from different eras? Or did they come to a life on their own?

It all began with Alex. She sort of kept popping up in my head – sometimes at the most inopportune times – and demanding my attention. Obviously, having a modern woman speak to me of the hardships in the 17th century grabbed my attention, and soon most of my nights were populated by dreams featuring Alex. With Alex came Matthew, at first no more than an outline. (Alex is the jealous type, and she isn’t too thrilled by how fond I am of Matthew. When she scowls at me, Matthew grins and winks, rather flattered by our attention.) On a more serious note, I did know I wanted to set a book in the 17th century, in Scotland and during a period of religious unrest. As I have a soft spot for men who have the integrity and courage to defend their beliefs, Matthew grew into a man of convictions, a man willing to risk a lot for his faith – and for his family, even if The Prodigal Son places him in the uncomfortable situation of risking his family for his faith.

Alex, being a modern liberated woman, faces challenges in the 17th century that she wouldn’t likely encounter in her “past” life. How do you decide her balance? That is to say, how does she know when to assert her independent thought or to step back?

If you ask Matthew, she shows very little restraint when it comes to voicing her opinions. In general, I agree with him; Alex is an independent woman – but she is also an intelligent woman, and as she has no yearning to be tried as a witch, she keeps an adequately low profile with certain people. I believe all humans have the capacity to adapt very quickly to new social norms – it is a prerequisite for our success as a species – and Alex is no exception to this.

Do you see yourself in Alex at all? If yes, how so? Is she modeled after someone in particular?

I hope I would accept new circumstances as well as Alex does. And yes, she is forthright and brave, has a big heart and a capacity to laugh at herself and others – I would like to believe these are qualities we share. But no, Alex isn’t modelled on anyone but her own self; she was very much a person in her own right when she started visiting me.

Every so often in The Prodigal Son Alex seems to open up a bit for the reader, including once when she laments the loss of her reading time and material. What kind of books did Alex like to read?

Alex is a computer engineer. Ergo, it follows the poor woman had a fondness for reading stuff like Bringing IT Security to a New Level. She was twelve when she read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. Other than that, she read quite a bit of crime with favourite authors being Reginald Hill and Elisabeth George. She also read everything by Gabriel García Marquez and loved Don Quijote. Her father taught her to love poetry – mostly in Swedish.

As you wrote the novel, did you learn anything surprising abut Matthew and/or Alex, or their children?

I just love the Graham children, and especially Ian, who is so torn in two. I had no idea Ian was dyslectic until I wrote the book, neither did I know just how complex Matthew’s love for his land was. Hillview lives in his blood, sits in his heart. His little manor is a precious charge he must hand over to the next generation, and to fail in doing so would be unbearable to him.

Do you have any interesting writing quirks? Do you write every day?

I write something every day. Not necessarily part of a new novel, or so, but I will definitely set pen to paper (finger tips to keyboard) on a daily basis. Most of it ends up on my blog – or in the virtual trash can.

Not sure I have any quirks – hang on; I guess I do. When I’m writing the more action-packed scenes, and especially if Matthew is in danger, I just can’t write it in one go. I write a sentence, stand up, take a little turn, pour some tea, watch two minutes of The Mentalist or whatever my husband is watching, sit down, write another sentence, exhale, and do it all again. Very exhausting, let me tell you!

Who were/are your favorite authors growing up or as an adult?

Growing up I was a major Henry Treece fan. I read a lot of Rosemary Sutcliff as well, and Tolkien – always Tolkien. As an adult, I am a fan of Sharon K. Penman, Antonia Fraser, James Burke, Barbara Nadel, Michael Dibdin and Salman Rushdie – oh, and of Diana Gabaldon.

What topic have you never read about that you would like to?

Not sure what you mean; like things I want to know more about? If so, I’d really like to get to grips with Plato. And I wouldn’t mind knowing more about astronomy, or about geology. And I’d like to learn to read music scores. And to speak and read Russian.

Do you have any projects on deck currently?

Apart from the ongoing Graham Saga – and there are more books to go – I have a trilogy tucked away which tells the story of Jason and Helle, two people who met and loved but briefly three thousand years ago before he was cheated into betraying her and thereby caused her death. Since then, he hurtles after her in life after life, desperately wanting to make amends.

Other than this, I am working on a novel set in 17th century Sweden and England, starring a young girl who grows up at Queen Kristina’s court and who becomes rather attached to a set of jewels that don’t belong to her, and so….

But both these projects take second place to the Alex and Matthew story – I have a very emotional relationship with these, my favourite characters. Sometimes I think they’re around for real, but my husband keeps on informing me that isn’t the case.

Do you like to read e-books, or still prefer the sound and feel of paper?

I have become an e-book addict. Why? Because it’s so convenient, and as I travel a lot, all I need is my Kindle to carry the equivalent of Ancient Alexandria’s library with me. But there’s something to reading a “real” book – especially in the bath.

I’ve read of your fondness for chocolate and recently discovered your love of math. Which do you like better?

Chocolate! Given the approaching X-mas season, a chocolate Advent calendar is obviously the perfect combo….

Given the opportunity to journey back in time, would you take it? What if you didn’t get to select the era? If you did, which would you choose?

I’d like to know for sure that I could go back. I may daydream a lot about life in other times, but I think the reality of it was pretty harsh. It was cold, it was dirty, the food could be dismal, and should you fall sick – or develop a toothache – well, God help you. (My preferred century, the 17th, was probably one of the dirtier, as in most European countries the communal bathhouses had definitely closed by then… ) Despite all this, if I were given the chance…. And if I’m to choose an era, it would be the 17th century – somewhere in the Colonies. Or the 15th century in Spain. Or maybe the early 14th century in Scotland. Or… Agh!

Is there anything else you’d like to mention to readers about yourself or your books?

I sing a lot. I cheer my colleagues up by dancing in their doorways – strangely enough, not all of them seem to appreciate it. I hate flying. I have a car thing, and should anyone feel like gifting me a bright blue Audi R8, I’d be thrilled to bits. I make an awesome apple pie. I dreamed of becoming a Navy SEAL and saving the world when I was young(er). Actually, I still dream of being a Navy SEAL and saving the world…

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Image courtesy Lisl Zlitni

Thank you so much for joining us, Anna, and we hope to see you again soon!

Thank you for having me, Lisl, and I must say that German Chocolate cake was just the thing on a cold and rather dreary November day!

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A copy of The Prodigal Son was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review. Cover image courtesy Anna Belfrage.