| 'Don't you hear them? The dead. Speaking.
From the pages of books?' asks the heroine of Stevie Davies's
Impassioned Clay. Olivia is a historian, passionate
about her work, lonely, spiky, longing for a loving relationship
with a woman. On official university occasions she "struts about,
provocatively", in her "best Oxfam male suit", complete with
shirt and tie. In the garden of the house where her Quaker mother
is buried, she finds a skeleton dating from the civil war: a
woman wearing a scold's bridle. Slowly, painstakingly, using
her historian's skills, Olivia reconstructs the woman's life.
Her name was Hannah: she and her female lover were Quakers,
passionate visionaries who rebelled against the men who wanted
to silence them. The novel is eloquent, erudite and, as Olivia
uncovers a story that is both alien and a distant mirror of
her own life, deeply moving.
| The Sunday Times
| Since reading Stevie Davies's brilliant
and unique study of women and the English Revolution, Unbridled
Spirits, the Bookie has developed the strongest of respect
for her work. For what characterised that book and what also
permeates her new novel, Impassioned Clay, is her
unbounded empathy for history and the human beings that it uncovers.
That process is at work again as Olivia, the teenage daughter
of a quaker mother, digs her mother's grave in the back garden
of their centuries-old Cheshire home. She exhumes the bones
of a republican woman called Hannah, who was hanged three-and-a-half
centuries before. As she grows older and becomes a university
teacher and researcher, her passion becomes a search for this
woman's life and struggle.
Through her scholarship, she discovers a revolutionary and a
visionary who was tortured and murdered by the frightened and
challenged men who ruled her era. She was condemned to wear
the brank - an instrument of punishment for witches and
blasphemers that was clamped to the skull. It was "an iron cage,
a stone in weight, with a bit two-inches long, ending in nine
iron pins with sharp points," which is rammed into the mouth
and stabbed into the victim's tongue, smashing her jaw and teeth
in the affixing.
Olivia becomes this woman through the unbridled power of her
empathy and historical memory. And, in doing so, her own life
becomes interpreted and clarified. Hannah is her lucidator,
the light which illuminates her own very different and yet very
similar reality. For Hannah is a rebel of the spirit, of the
world and of the way that people need to live a love. As Olivia
tracks down her face, her mind, her writing and her lesbian
love for Isabel, a farmworker whom she scoops away from her
labours in the fields, her own life's heart and sexuality finds
comradeship and clarity.
Now, the Bookie thinks, Impassioned Clay is some
novel and wonders why it has not found more recognition, for,
in excavating history, it also removes the earth from many of
our own now-times complexities. Perhaps it digs too deep, loosens
too much ground, English ground at that, for current postmodern
"Her poor tongue," Olivia keeps repeating, as she remembers
"the skull's shattered teeth and her unholy pain seemed to gush
into the cavity of my mouth." For it is those unquietened "vehement
voices" - uncompromisingly rebellious, humane and strident,
yet also tender and loving that the tongue only forges -
that stay with the reader.
Whether it is Isabel's ragging critique in her own Lancashire
demotic dialect of the "Shit-God made Arsehole-church," or Hannah's
brave refutations of the masculinity of God and the loving belief
between both women that they had conceived a child of woman
- it is speech, assaulted and ended by the rusty, spiked
prongs of the Stockport brank, that becomes the saviour as well
as first witness of history. The voice, thinks the Bookie, the
human voice, always subversive, never quiescent, still talking
and telling through brave and beautiful tongues like those of
| This is not simply a historical novel.
Its carefully crafted narrative counterpoises women's past lives
with those of today, amplifying the emotional sides of passionate
female mystics by underscoring the similarities with passions
of our own ... this is a beautifully written and elegantly constructed
|Lisa Jardine, The
| Beautifully written, full of atmosphere
and emotion. [Davies] conjures up the feeling of history oozing
its way up through the layers of time to seep into the present.
| This book is so beautifully written,
I've clung to every sentence . . . the utter brilliance of the
story is such that I stumble for words simply thinking about
it. I can't do this book justice. I can't do this review justice.
I'm not even going to try. Just put me out of my misery and
| Piercing, elegiac prose. A superior novel.
| Resonant and richly textured.
|Times Literary Supplement
| A virtuoso novel.
| A compelling story, full of dramatic and moving
|Good Book Guide
| An intelligent novel that lingers in the mind -
|Historical Novels Review
| A strangely compelling narrative, a
complex hybrid of 'stream of consciousness' and historical whodunnit...
sometimes macabre, often moving, with poignant insight into
life, Impassioned Clay is an impressive read.
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