Simeon and the Cable Car Mission

Dear Secret Agent Simeon,
Special forces in London have learnt that aliens are planning an attack on the Earth. Their primary method of control will be to transmit supersonic radio waves using the spikes of the O2 dome in North Greenwich as a broadcast relay. The code to jam the signal is out there somewhere! We just need you to follow the Trail and work it out!
Regards, Treasure Trails

Yet again, Simeon, the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please), is called in to save the world. After receiving instructions from Treasure Trails, Simeon rushed to North Greenwich in London to search and unscramble clues. Here, Simeon exited the London Underground onto Peninsula Square. In front of him stood the multi-purpose O2 arena (formerly the Millennium Dome), upon which twelve 100 metre yellow spikes rose high into the air. After checking that the aliens were not already transmitting radio waves from the spikes, Simeon looked around for clues.

The ground on which Simeon stood was formerly known as Greenwich Marshes. The land once belonged to the River Thames until the 16th century, when Dutch engineers drained the area to use as pasture land. During the following century, the peninsula was also used to store gunpowder, which traders delivered by boat to places across the world. Also, in the 17th century, corpses of pirates were hung in cages to deter other would-be pirates from committing crimes at sea. Fortunately, the pirates were of no concern to Simeon; he felt more worried about the potential alien attack.

During the 19th century, Greenwich Marshes grew into an industrial area with Henry Blakeley’s Ordnance Works and Henry Bessemer’s steelworks taking up residence. During the 1870s, shipbuilders, oil companies and gas companies arrived, the latter of which dominated the peninsula for the next 100 years. East Greenwich Gas Works was the last of its kind built in London and spanned 240 acres, making it the largest gas works in Europe. It eventually closed in the 1960s after the discovery of natural gas reserves in the North Sea rendered it obsolete.

Significant development work took place during the 1990s, including new roads, cycleways, homes and commercial spaces. The decade came to an end with the opening of the Millennium Dome and North Greenwich station. The year 2000 saw the construction of Greenwich Millennium Village on the site of the old gasworks. Today, there are approximately 2000 flats and houses in the urban village. Nearby, the man-made Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park reflects the nature of the original marshland and provides a green space in the ever-growing city.

Until the Blackwall Tunnel opened in 1897, the only way to reach Greenwich Peninsula was by boat and foot. The railway did not pass through the area until 1999 when North Greenwich tube station opened on the Jubilee line. Simeon was pleased he could travel by train since he did not fancy swimming across the Thames. Since 2012, another mode of transport, the Emirates Air Line, takes passengers from the peninsula to the Royal Victoria Dock on the opposite side of the river. This is where Simeon headed next to seek out more clues.

The Emirates Air Line is a 0.62-mile (1.00 km) cable car service run by Transport for London (TfL). It carries 34 cabins across the Thames at up to 90 metres (300 ft) above ground level, providing stunning views across London. On a clear day, passengers can see as far as Wembley Stadium, 13 miles away.

After years of planning, the Emirates Air Line took one year to construct. Wilkinson Eyre ArchitectsExpedition Engineering and Buro Happold collaborated on the design, featuring three helix towers supporting the long steel cable. Each cable car can carry up to 10 passengers, meaning 2500 people can travel every hour. This is the equivalent of 50 busloads.

Whilst keeping an eye out of aliens, Simeon admired the view and excitedly pointed out the buildings he could see. From the cable car, passengers can appreciate the unique design of the O2 Dome, which appears much smaller from such a height, despite being large enough to hold 12 football pitches. In the distance, skyscrapers such as The Shard and One Canada Square (Canary Wharf) dwarf the surrounding buildings, including the peculiar shaped 30 St Mary Axe building (the Gherkin). Other notable structures include the ArcelorMittal Orbit in Stratford, the London Eye and, on a clear day, the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, which connects Dartford in Kent with Thurrock in Essex.

Simeon’s spy documents told him to look out for the lighthouse on Trinity Buoy Wharf, which is the home of Longplayer, an installation that plays a piece of music with a total expected runtime of 1000 years. Composed by British composer and musician Jem Finer (b.1955), the music started to play at midnight on 1st January 2000. It will continue without repetition until 31st December 2999.

The lighthouse, sometimes known as Bow Creek Lighthouse, was built between 1864 and 1866 by Sir James Douglass (1826-98). There were once two lighthouses on Trinity Buoy Wharf, but the older was demolished in the 1920s. They were used by the Corporation of Trinity House to test lighting systems for lighthouses around the country. English scientist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) also conducted experiments with electric lighting.

Since 2005, the University of East London uses the wharf as the location of their fine art studios. The university also uses the old Chainstore as a dance studio. The BBC used the Chainstore as the filming location for series seven of The Great British Sewing Bee in 2021. The wharf is also home to the Thames Clippers, which sail Londoners and tourists up and down the river. When not in use, they store the boats on the pier.

Simeon dismounted from the Emirates Air Line onto the Royal Victoria Dock, the largest dock in the redeveloped Docklands. The original docks opened in 1855 on the unused Plaistow Marshes. Engineer prodigy, George Parker Bidder (1806-78), designed the docks to accommodate large steam ships and use hydraulic power to operate machinery. Initially, the dock was named Victoria Dock until it was granted the “Royal” prefix in 1880.

By 1860, Victoria Dock received annual shipments of 850,000 tons, over double the other docks in London. Unfortunately, damage during the Second World War made the dock impractical, and trade gradually declined until it ceased altogether in 1981. A decade later, the dilapidated area underwent redevelopment by the London Docklands Development Corporation. Most warehouses were demolished, and in their place, the Britannia Village and the ExCeL were built. Since 2009, Royal Victoria Dock is the location of the Great London Swim, during which participants swim a mile in the River Thames.

Simeon had no desire to swim in the Thames and set about looking for clues on dry land. So that the aliens could not spot him, Simeon made use of the Peekaboo bench on the waterfront. Designed by Portia Malik, the playful bench provides privacy for swimmers to change into and out of their swimming costumes and wetsuits. It includes hooks for a towel and two peepholes so the sitter can see what is happening on the other side of the bench. Simeon had great fun watching the world go by unobserved.

After successfully unearthing clues on the Eastern Quay of the Royal Victoria Dock, Simeon needed to cross the water to the Northern Quay. With no cable cars to take him across, Simeon searched for an alternative route. Swimming across was out of the question, so Simeon was relieved when he found the entrance to the Royal Victoria Dock Bridge.

Designed and built by Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands in 1998, the Royal Victoria Dock Bridge is accessible at both ends by a lift and stair towers. Simeon did not fancy climbing up the tower to a height of 15 m (50 ft) above the water level, so he took the lift instead. The bridge spans 127.5 m (418 ft) and is tall enough to allow yachts to sail underneath.

From the top of the bridge, Simeon had a good view across the dock. He particularly enjoyed seeing aeroplanes taking off from London City Airport. The airport opened in 1987 and sees hundreds of planes taking off and landing every day. It is currently under threat from the political Green Party, who believe the planes cause “untold health and environmental problems to thousands of local residents”. Nonetheless, London City Airport continues to serve over 5 million passengers a year and flies to at least 35 destinations. Whilst Simeon saw many planes, he did not see any alien spaceships. “I must crack the code and prevent the aliens from attacking,” said Simeon as he tore his eyes away from the runway.

While crossing the bridge, Simeon spotted the derelict Millennium Mills, which the Evening Standard describes as a “decaying industrial anachronism standing defiant and alone in the surrounding subtopia.” The building closed along with the Royal Docks in 1981 and, as yet, has not been demolished or restored. Plans were made to redevelop the building with the rest of the Royal Victoria Dock, yet the Millennium Mills remain untouched.

The urban thrill seeker Christian Koch describes the Millennium Mills as a booby-trapped House of Horrors. “Danger awaits their every step in Millennium Mills. The rotten floors are comparable to thick slices of Emmenthal riddled with pigeon faeces and yawning holes that drop eight or nine storeys in some places.” The unused building has been a setting in several television series and films, including Ashes to Ashes (2008), The Man From U.N.C.L.E (2013), Paddington 2 (2017), and Alex Rider (2020).

At the other end of the bridge, Simeon took the lift down to ground level and emerged by the ExCeL (Exhibition Centre London). The convention centre opened on the Royal Victoria Dock in 2000. It has hosted several events over the past two decades, including the British International Motor Show, MCM London Comic Con, and the 2009 G-20 London Summit. In 2012, the London Olympics held several events at the ExCeL, such as boxing, fencing, judo, taekwondo, table tennis, weightlifting, and wrestling. At the outbreak of COVID-19, the NHS transformed the ExCeL into a temporary hospital, which they named NHS Nightingale. Since the hospital closed, the site has become a mass COVID-19 vaccination centre.

Simeon did not need to visit the ExCeL to solve the remainder of his clues and work out the code to stop the aliens from attacking the Earth. Instead, he explored the northern quay, where he came across an interesting sculpture. Erected in 2009, Landed is a bronze sculpture by Australian fine artist Les Johnson. It was funded by the Royal Docks Trust, the ExCeL and the Queen Mother as a tribute to those who worked in the Royal Docks between 1855 and 1981. Landed depicts three larger-than-life dockworkers going about their daily work. One man unchains a delivery of goods while another tallies the items in a notebook. The third man stands by with a two-wheel hand trolley, ready to transport the items to the warehouse.

Johnson based the three men on real dockworkers. One is Johnny Ringwood, a former seaman who had sailed the world before working on the docks. At the age of 81, Ringwood, now living in Hornchurch, published his biography Cargoes & Capers: The life and times of a London Docklands man (2017), which describes his experiences at sea and on land. The tally clerk is modelled on Patrick Holland, who worked as a stevedore for twenty years. At the unveiling of the statue, his wife Patricia explained, “stevedore is a Portuguese name, this was a skilled job, and these men were in the hold of the ship all day unloading or loading.” The third man is Mark Tibbs, a boxer from Canning Town.

Finally, Simeon reached the end of his trail, worked out the code and jammed the alien’s signal. “Mission accomplished!” cheered Simeon. Compared with other missions from Treasure Trails, the Cable Car Mission was particularly difficult, but nothing can defeat a determined gibbon. As well as solving clues, Simeon learned a lot about the Greenwich Peninsula and Royal Victoria Dock. He particularly enjoyed travelling in the cable car, even if it did momentarily stop, leaving him dangling over the Thames!

As a reward, Simeon treated himself to a chicken burger at Top 1 Forever, a restaurant based in the redeveloped section of Royal Victoria Dock. Well deserved!

To purchase the Cable Car Mission Treasure Trail, visit treasuretrails.co.uk

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part Two
Simeon goes to Grantham


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Simeon goes to Grantham

Dear Secret Agent Simeon. The miserable malcontent Ivor Grudge is up to his old tricks again. This time he has planted a device in the Bell Tower of St Wulfram’s Church. The device is set to explode at the stroke of midnight. You must act quickly to find the code to deactivate the device and save the Church and the resident Peregrine Falcons who nest there.
Regards, Treasure Trails

Once again, Simeon, the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please), is called in to save the day. After receiving Top Secret Spy Mission Documents from Treasure Trails in the post, Simeon headed to the South Kesteven district of Lincolnshire to follow a trail of clues around the town of Grantham. The two-mile trek took Simeon past some notable sights, including the birthplace of the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the school attended by Sir Isaac Newton.

Grantham was once an Anglo-Saxon “homestead by gravel”. Names ending in ham were usually medieval homesteads, and “Grant” comes from the Old English word for gravel. Today, the urbanised town contains shopping centres, many pubs, industrial estates and high street shops. Yet, as Simeon discovered, there are plenty of buildings dating back hundreds of years.

According to the Domesday Book of 1086, Edith the Fair (c. 1025-66), the first wife of King Harold Godwinson (c. 1022-66), had a hall or house in Grantham before the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After this, William the Conqueror (1028-87) established a manor house, and the area became a valuable asset to future kings. Records also reveal St Wulfram’s Church existed at the time of the “Great Survey”. Yet, the building Simeon set out to save was built at a later date.

Simeon’s trail of clues passed through St Wulfram’s churchyard, and Simeon could not resist having a peek inside the church. The building is named in honour of St Wulfram of Fontenelle (c. 640-703), who served as the Archbishop of Sens in France during the 7th century. Wulfram took holy orders hoping for a quiet life, but instead, he became a missionary to Friesland in Germany. He succeeded in converting the pagan King Radbod (d. 719) to Christianity before retiring to Fontenelle. After his death, Wulfram was canonised, and he is remembered for several miracles. He is credited with the miraculous delivery of a stillborn baby, thus saving the mother’s life, preventing the death of a hanged man, and rescuing two boys who the king had sacrificed to the sea during a pagan ritual.

There are only four churches dedicated to St Wulfram, two in France and two in England. One is in Ovingdean, Sussex, and the other in Grantham. Only a few stones of the original Saxon church remain in Grantham, which was altered and expanded by the Normans after 1066. Likewise, not much is visible of the Norman building due to a lightning strike in 1222.

In 1280, after rebuilding the nave, the church expanded towards the west, taking over the space once belonging to a Saxon marketplace. Supporting piers or columns in the church feature mason marks, which indicate the gradual process of building the tower. Simeon, being on the small side, could not see these marks from ground level, but he felt awe-inspired by the height of the spire, which is visible across the town.

The spire reaches an impressive height of 86.2 metres (283 ft), making it the tallest church in England at the time of completion. Many churches and cathedrals are now taller than St Wulfram’s, but it takes credit for inspiring architects to aspire to reach such heights. One side of the spire is wider than the other to incorporate a spiral staircase leading to the belfry. “That’s where the nasty Ivor Grudge has planted his device,” realised Simeon. “I must prevent him from destroying this beautiful church.”

Simeon hurried off to complete his mission after temporarily getting distracted by the beautiful stained glass windows. The oldest windows date to the Victorian era and illustrate scenes such as the Last Supper, Christ’s early years, the Evangelists and the biblical Prophets. Others depict the four Lincolnshire saints: Regimus, Hugh, Botolph and Gilbert of Sempringham, and the Latin Fathers: Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory and Augustine.

Four windows are relatively modern in comparison to the Victorian stained-glass. One, known as the Catlin window, depicts a war in heaven, as described in Revelation 12:7-12. Designed by Henry Harvey of York in 1962, the window shows the archangel Michael holding the scales of justice and a spear. On one side, a man, surrounded by chaos, begs the angel for help. On the other, a defeated Satan and the condemned fall into hell. This window was donated by Lewis Catlin in memory of his family.

The Porter Window (1969), named in memory of Jessie Porter, depicts the birth and life of Christ. Jessie came from a family of shoemakers in Grantham, so the designer Leonard Evetts (1909-1997) included shoemaker tools in the design. John Hayward (1929-2007), who made nearly 200 stained glass windows in his lifetime, produced the other two contemporary windows. Donated by Thomas Hall in memory of Minnie Hall in 1970 is a window depicting Jesus walking on water. His disciple, Peter, tries to follow suit but begins to sink. “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:31, NIV)

Hayward designed the other window in 1974 for Lily Pinchbeck in memory of members of her family, who regularly attended St Wulfram’s Church. The design symbolically represents the seven Sacraments: baptism (font and scallop shell), eucharist (bread and wine), confirmation and holy orders (bishop’s mitre), reconciliation (tears), anointing of the sick (oil), and marriage (ring). The window also represents the Pinchbeck family with references to baptism, singing in the choir and serving at the altar.

Having finished admiring the interior of St Wulfram’s Church, which Sir Gilbert Scott (1811-78) expertly restored in the 1860s, Simeon ventured outside to search for clues along Church Street. Several old buildings surround the church, including the original building of the King’s School (the present school is situated on Brook Street). On closer inspection, Simeon discovered that Isaac Newton (1642-1726) once attended the school between 1655 and 1660.

The school’s history dates back to the early 15th century, but few records exist until Bishop Richard Foxe (1448-1528) refounded the establishment in 1528. This suggests the school fell into disuse towards the beginning of the 16th century. Foxe came from Ropsley, a village near Grantham and served as Lord Privy Seal to Henry VII (1457-1509). Foxe also refounded Taunton Grammar School in Somerset (1522) and set up Corpus Christi College in Oxford (1517).

During the 16th century, the school officially became known as the Free Grammar School of King Edward VI. At first, not many attended the school, so classes were not large when Newton began studying in 1655. The future “natural philosopher” started attending King’s School at the age of 12, where he learned elementary mathematics, Latin and religion. He lodged with an apothecary’s family in the high street, who noted he was “a sober, silent, thinking lad,” yet records suggest Newton could also defend himself in a physical fight.

Newton paid little attention to his lessons, preferring to make mechanical devices and discover how things worked. (“I would rather climb trees,” says Simeon.) As he approached his 17th birthday, Newton’s mother called him home to work on the family estate, but he proved useless at manual labour and frequently had his head in a book. Newton’s uncle and Mr Stokes, the schoolmaster at King’s School, persuaded Newton’s mother to return him to school. After another year of education, Newton earned a place at Trinity College, Cambridge. As was customary for King’s School scholars in the 17th century, Isaac Newton carved his signature on the wall of the school library.

Isaac Newton is remembered fondly in Grantham, and Simeon spotted many references to the scholar around the town. The primary shopping centre is named the Isaac Newton Centre, which houses the public library as well as a range of shops. Opposite the centre is a statue of Newton, which the town erected in 1858. The sculptor, William Theed the Younger (1804-91), a favourite of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), made the statue from the bronze of a Russian cannon used during the Crimean War. It cost the public £1800 to produce this statue of Newton, which is the equivalent of £230,000 today.

During his search for clues, Simeon discovered another statue dedicated to Sir Isaac Newton. Situated in Wyndham Park Sensory Garden is a large hand holding an apple. Newton developed his Law of Gravitation after witnessing an apple falling from a tree. Nigel Sardeson, a self-taught woodcarver, produced the statue from the remains of a horse chestnut tree in 2010. Unfortunately, the roots and interior of the tree stump began to decay, and the statue sprouted fungus.

An urgent preservation project took place in 2015. The statue was removed from the ground and taken away for treatment. A year later, the Mayor of Grantham, Linda Wootton, unveiled the refurbished apple sculpture, which now sits upon a concrete base.

The apple statue is one of many attractions in Wyndham Park. As Simeon made his way through the grass and trees, he came across an open-air paddling pool, a model boating lake and the River Witham. Carefully skirting these for fear of getting wet, Simeon searched the area of clues.

The park is named after Lieutenant The Hon. William Reginald Wyndham of the 1st Life Guards, who died in action in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. His mother, Constance Evelyn Primrose, Lady Leconfield (1846-1939), officially opened the park in 1924. The model boating lake predated the park by almost forty years and was once used for bathing.

While walking beside the River Witham, Simeon spotted a bench dedicated to Mr James Bench, the inventor of the bench. Scratching his head, Simeon moved on, convinced someone was pulling his leg. Soon, Simeon was distracted by a sign marking the way to “Grantham’s Oldest Resident”. Intrigued, Simeon eagerly took that path, eyes peeled to spot something very old.

After walking almost a mile (a very long way for a little gibbon), Simeon finally came face-to-face with “Grantham’s Oldest Resident”: an oak tree. Resisting his animal instincts, Simeon looked up in awe at the huge tree rather than climb up its 600-year old trunk. The tree is an ancient English oak (Quercus Robur) with a girth of over 7 metres. That’s more than 30 Simeons!

The tree’s exact age is indeterminable, but the Woodland Trust suggest it may have been a sapling when Grantham was attacked during the War of the Roses in 1461. The tree has seen Grantham grow from a relatively small village into a large town with a population of over 44,000 people. In 2018, construction work threatened the Grantham Oak, whose roots stretch almost 7 metres. The Woodland Trust and the South Kesteven District Council intervened, placing protective measures around the tree and its roots to protect it from damage. It is unusual to find an oak tree as old as this in an urban setting. Most are cut down to make way for roads and buildings, so the Grantham Oak’s survival makes it even more special.

Back in the town centre, Simeon spotted the much thinner Market Cross. Demolished and rebuilt several times over the centuries, the cross is a reminder of Grantham’s early days as an 11th-century market town. Grantham played a large role in the wool trade, which helped raise funds to build St Wulfram’s Church. The nine metre-high cross sits in the centre of the historic part of the town on octagonal limestone slabs.

Not far from the Market Cross, Simeon found a tea room (or gibbon refuelling stop, as he calls it) and treated himself to a chocolate brownie. Being an observant gibbon, Simeon noticed the strange name of the tea room, The Conduit. “I wonder why it has that name,” thought Simeon. He did not need to look far to find out. On the pavement outside stood a strange little building, also called The Conduit. This is the remains of Grantham’s first public water supply.

The first water conduit was constructed in 1134 by the Greyfriars, a group of Franciscan monks who lived near the marketplace. They used lead pipes to convey water from a nearby spring to their house. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the water was rerouted to the strange little building outside the tea room in 1597. The inhabitants of Grantham could draw water from the conduit instead of springs or streams, and by 1680, water carts delivered water directly to houses for a fee of £3 a year. The conduit needed several repairs throughout its lifetime, and the lead pipes were replaced with iron pipes. Eventually, the conduit fell out of use due to the advent of modern water systems.

While looking for clues, Simeon came across a whole range of interesting things, including the birthplace of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). Thatcher, née Roberts attended Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, which was established in 1910. The King’s School, attended by Newton, only admits boys.

Thatcher and Newton are not the only notable people from Grantham. Edith Smith (1876-1924), the first woman police officer with full arrest powers, patrolled the streets of Grantham. Thomas Paine (1737-1809), the author of Common Sense, briefly worked in the town as an Excise Officer. There are also many past and present politicians and sportsmen who hail from the area. Simeon also came across a family of bees living in a hive outside the Beehive Inn. South African bees have inhabited the hive since 1830.

After walking the many streets of Grantham, Simeon solved all the clues, cracked the code and saved St Wulfram’s Church from destruction. He learned so much about the town along the way and thoroughly enjoyed himself. When in the area, Simeon recommends visiting Belton House, built in the 17th century. It is located 3 miles from Grantham and has extensive parklands. It was also one of the locations for the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice.

To purchase the Grantham Treasure Trail, visit treasuretrails.co.uk

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part Two


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Jodi Picoult

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how to write a book review. While writing, I discovered that I have, to date, written 392 book reviews, of which a list is available here. Many of my reviews are about pre-published books sent to me by the author or publisher via NetGalley or Goodreads, but I also review books of my choice. Examples of the latter include books by American author Jodi Picoult.

Jodi Picoult (born 1966) is the author of over 25 novels that tackle a wide range of controversial or moral issues. She is adept at tackling matters in a sensitive, honest way, whether they involve abortion, assisted suicide, race relations, eugenics, LGBT rights, or school shootings. Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones, the authors of Encyclopedia of Contemporary Writers and Their Works (2020), described Picoult as “a paradox, a hugely popular, at times controversial writer, ignored by academia, who questions notions of what constitutes literature simply by doing what she does best.”

I first came across Jodi Picoult in 2008 when my A-Level Religious Studies tutor suggested reading My Sister’s Keeper to help with our medical Ethics Module. Not only did I enjoy the book, but it also rekindled my love of reading. Picoult’s writing ability is exceptional, and her turn of phrases are almost poetical. It is no surprise that Picoult has won at least 14 awards and honours.

In 2014, I decided to write reviews of all Jodi Picoult’s novels. So far, I have only managed to write about eight books, but I plan to continue this goal in the future. (Although the 20+ books on my to-read pile suggest this will not be achieved any time soon!)

My Sister’s Keeper (reviewed 2015)

“If you use one of your children to save the life of another, are you being a good mother or a very bad one?”

My Sister’s Keeper was the first Jodi Picoult novel I read. (I have since read all Picoult’s books to date) I was not expecting much when I first picked it up, especially as I was reading it for a Medical Ethics module at college. Yet this book rekindled my love of reading, and suddenly, after only reading one story, I was asking for Jodi Picoult books for my birthday.

Many people may be familiar with the storyline, even if they have not read the book, as My Sister’s Keeper shot to fame when the film version hit the cinemas. Thirteen-year-old Anna Fitzgerald was Rhode Island’s first genetically engineered baby, created to provide her older sister Kate with the means to survive acute promyelocytic leukaemia. However, over the next few years, Kate relapses resulting in Anna going under numerous procedures, such as bone marrow extraction, to save Kate’s life. Now things have got so bad that Kate will die unless Anna gives up one of her kidneys, yet unwilling to do this, Anna hires a lawyer, Campbell Alexander, to sue her parents for the rights of her own body.

From reading a synopsis, the reader can already see that My Sister’s Keeper is going to be an emotional story, but what made me love the author so much?

The story was told from six points of view: Anna, Jesse (older brother), Sara (mother), Brian (father), Campbell and Julie (guardian ad litem). Notice that Kate was not one of the narrators, which leads us to speculate from the very start that Anna wins the case and Kate dies. Within the six main characters, there is no antagonist – unless you count cancer – and in all of them, the reader can find something relatable.

In one of the chapters, Jesse pronounces that Kate is the martyr, Anna the peacekeeper and himself the lost cause. With Anna, we can recognize the struggle to follow the decisions laid down for us by other people – a time when we have no choice of our own. Jesse represents the times when we have been ignored and forgotten because of bigger or more important events, thus resulting in attention-seeking behaviour. Brian, the firefighter, the man who wants to save everyone, cannot put out the metaphorical fire plaguing his family. Sara, whose narrative starts in the past rather than the present day, shows us how easy it is to get wrapped up in one problem (or daughter), ignoring everything (or everyone) else.

One great thing about all Picoult’s novels is that they are not focused on one storyline. Granted, this book focuses on the trial and Kate’s illness, but the inclusion of Campbell and Julia’s voices provide an additional subplot. Julia is not thrilled to discover that she will be working alongside Campbell, a person she knew from school with whom she had a difficult past. Since then, Julia has found herself unlucky in love and blames Campbell for this. Campbell, on the other hand, has troubles of his own and needs a service dog with him at all times. Yet, he is self-conscious about people knowing the reason behind this and often comes up with creative lies to stop people from asking questions. “Maybe if God gives you a handicap, he makes sure you’ve got a few extra doses of humour to take the edge off.”

Another reason Picoult’s books are so great is that the reader learns something every time. My Sister’s Keeper is full of medical and legal jargon, which may go over some people’s heads. Yet, it is also bursting with random bits of knowledge, for example, how to treat a fire, facts about astronomy, and many other interesting details that the characters use as metaphors to describe their experiences.

My Sister’s Keeper is a story that will stay in people’s hearts and minds for a long time. We never learn who the narrator of the prologue was, but we immediately assume that it is Anna and that she wants Kate to die. By the end, we are still unsure who the character was, but if it was Anna, we see it in a completely different light. This is not a book about whether it is ethical for Anna to be Kate’s donor; it is not a cancer story. Instead, it is a message about the right for each person to have choices about their lives.

A warning to potential readers: this book could break your heart, shock you or leave you in tears. My Sister’s Keeper is full of irony. For instance, Jesse’s experimentation with arson, causing fires that are subsequently put out by his father. But the biggest sense of irony and the biggest shock is the ending (FYI this is the complete opposite to the film ending). After everything that Anna has achieved, devastating circumstances result in the same conclusion that it would have had Anna sat back and done nothing. Yet this does not make it a pointless story. Despite Anna’s actions almost tearing the family apart, it also wakes them from the stupor that Kate’s illness has put them in and makes them realise how precious everything else in their life is too.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, and if you have not read a Jodi Picoult novel before, I strongly suggest you begin with this one. It is suitable for adult and adolescent readers, especially those who like to think about hypothetical, moral questions. My Sister’s Keeper gets you questioning your own choices and actions within your own life and may even make you view the world slightly differently.

The Storyteller (reviewed 2014)

Jodi Picoult is the bestselling author of numerous novels, with My Sister’s Keeper being the most well known. All of her stories are well written, although it is still possible to notice improvements in the writing over the years right up until now with her latest, The Storyteller, which quite possibly could be her best yet.

Arguably, The Storyteller does not quite read like a typical Jodi Picoult novel. This is, in part, because of the nature of the story. Most of her previous books deal with medical ethics and/or court cases, whereas this story features neither. The Storyteller contains a combination of past and present – the main focus being on the Holocaust.

Four people narrate the novel: two in the present day and two giving an account of their experience during the Second World War. It begins with Sage Singer, a 25-year-old, hermit-like woman with a disfiguring facial scar – the result of a terrible accident, one that also led to the death of her mother. For the past three years, Sage has been participating in a grief group – a place where people who have lost loved ones can come together and talk about their feelings. After three years, surely Sage would no longer need the help of the group? However, she still attends, not because she finds it helpful, but for the opposite reason. She even says herself: “If it were helpful I wouldn’t still be coming.” It unfolds that she still blames herself for her mother’s death despite the reassurances that it was an accident and not her fault.

It is through the grief group that Sage meets the elderly Josef Weber. After becoming friendly and discovering that Sage comes from a Jewish family, Josef confesses to something terrible – he was a Nazi during the war. He killed people. He wants Sage to represent all the Jews he killed and forgive him. Then he wants her to help him die.

While Josef recounts his experience of being part of the Nazi party, Picoult provides another account. Minka, Sage’s grandmother, describes the terrors she faced as an imprisoned Jew suffering fates such as the deaths of all her family and friends and her time in Auschwitz. Another element of the novel is the vampire story Minka wrote as a teenager. This is interspersed between the other chapters of the book. Unwittingly, Minka’s fictional tale reflects the alienation and destruction of the Jews. The final character is Leo who, like Sage, is narrating the present day and trying to locate ex-Nazi members to be punished by the government.

One thing to praise Picoult for, not just in The Storyteller, but also in all her novels, is the amount of in-depth research she undertakes to make her stories as accurate as possible even though they are fictional. Minka’s account was written in such a way that it was almost believable that Picoult had been there and experienced it herself. She even learnt to bake bread so that she could write from the point of view of a baker. This is pure dedication!

The Storyteller is an amazing, beautiful book that informs, shocks and stays with you for a long time. You will question your morals and ability to forgive. Is anyone entirely evil? Is anyone entirely good? Perhaps we are both, so why should anyone have the right to treat others as inferior to themselves?

Leaving Time (reviewed 2015)

Jodi Picoult keeps getting better and better. Her latest novel, Leaving Time, explores a daughter’s search for her mother, who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier. Jenna Metcalf is a thirteen-year-old girl living with her grandmother who is determined to discover the whereabouts of her mother, who has not been seen for ten years, since a tragic event at a local elephant sanctuary.

Jenna recruits the help of Virgil Stanhope – an ex-policeman who has gone into hiding – and Serenity Jones – a failed psychic. As the three of them look into the events of a decade ago, they begin to piece together possible scenarios resulting in a woman vanishing without a trace. But just as importantly, they try to explain the reasons for a mother to abandon her daughter.

Jenna’s mother, Alice Metcalf, was a scientist who loved to study the grieving processes of elephants. Although Jenna tells one part of the story, Alice provides the reader with a different story – one of the past, one of Africa, one of elephants. As with many of Picoult’s novels, Leaving Time is not purely a piece of entertainment; it teaches the reader something new. Through Alice, Picoult unleashes a torrent of information about the lives of elephants in Africa and explains their behaviours. She explains what happens to the animals that are captured by circus trainers or zoos, as well as the work a sanctuary may do to save the lives of these creatures.

Alice and Jenna are not the only voices of this story. Virgil and Serenity have chapters to describe things from their perceptions. What is great about this is that although the main storyline is about Jenna’s search for her mother, Virgil and Serenity provide additional stories alongside it. Jenna’s interaction with Virgil helps him deal with his past and come to terms with the mistakes he may have made when investigating the original tragedy at the sanctuary. Likewise, Jenna helps Serenity believe in herself again and to focus less on her past failures.

Picoult’s writing, as always, is beautiful and sucks the reader into the narrative. It is easy to relate to all the characters in some way and understand a little of what they are going through despite having never been in their situation. Through her ability to do this, Picoult engages the readers from beginning to end. Fans of Picoult’s other novels, such as My Sister’s Keeper, will be familiar with Picoult’s surprising plot twists. Leaving Time tops all of those and will leave the reader almost breathless and in awe of Picoult’s imagination.

It is with no doubt that Leaving Time is an excellent novel exploring numerous themes, from a mother’s love to the paranormal. It entertains as well as educates, leaving the reader a lot more knowledgeable by the very end. It makes you think, it makes you hope, and it makes you want to keep on reading. Glamour magazine defies us “not to be gripped” and, after reading it, you will agree that is not entirely possible.

Nineteen Minutes (reviewed 2016)

Your son says the bullying was unbearable. But his revenge was murder. What would you do?

Nineteen Minutes 
is perhaps Jodi Picoult’s most controversial novel, as well as one of the longest. Lots of things can happen in nineteen minutes, including a school shooting resulting in the deaths of ten people. This is what happens at the beginning of this book, leaving hundreds of teachers and students emotionally scarred for the remainder of their lives. Picoult explores the reactions of a community whose ideas of safety have shattered, the grief of the victims and their families and, perhaps most importantly, the heartache of the parents of the shooter.

Seventeen-year-old Peter Houghton has had enough of the bullying that he has endured throughout his entire school life. He has no friends, is constantly miserable, possibly suicidal, and so, on a typical morning in March 2007, he decides to permanently fix the situation, unthinking of the consequences. But why did he go to such extremes? What circumstances in his life led to firing a gun as the only solution?

As the evidence is gathered in the lead up to the court trial, many characters question their involvement in Peter’s life. Firstly there is Josie Cormier, a straight-A student who swapped her childhood friendship with Peter for popularity and her boyfriend Matt, a particularly aggressive bully. Secondly, there is Alex Cormier, Josie’s mother, who destroyed her friendship with Peter’s mother after finding their five-year-old children playing with guns in the Houghton’s basement.

If Peter’s father had never owned a selection of hunting rifles, would Peter ever have thought of guns as a way out of his predicament? On the other hand, Lacy Houghton blames herself for not noticing how badly her son was suffering, not just at school but home as well, where he had to live up to the memory of his saint-like older brother who died in a car crash the previous year.

Naturally, a tragic event such as this changes people, but not always in a negative way. Relationships begin to blossom as characters realize how close they were to losing the ones they love. Alex takes a step back from her demanding job to comfort Josie in the aftermath, thus feeling closer to her than she ever has done before. Alex, a single mother, also opens herself up to a romantic relationship, something she has had no time to consider up until now.

All the while, Defense Attorney Jordan McAfee, who some readers may remember from Salem Falls, fights a losing battle to get Peter acquitted by arguing and prying into Peter’s emotions to discover his reason for committing murder.

What I like about Picoult’s novels is that there is more to them than a simple storyline. While the story plays out and plot twists happen, the reader is learning something new. In Nineteen Minutes, Picoult provides insight into midwifery, psychology and economics – things that are not synonymous with the shootings.

Readers will constantly question whose side of the story they are on. Hundreds of people grow up being bullied and will understand how Peter was feeling, yet they would not pick up a gun. Likewise, by putting themselves in the shoes of the victims, readers will think about how they would feel in the same situation, however, would anyone be willing to admit that they made someone else’s life a living hell? There is no simple conclusion to Nineteen Minutes; someone will always lose. Nevertheless, Picoult’s fantastic writing skills provide an enthralling story of love and loss.

I cannot recommend this book to readers in general due to the nature of the themes found in the story. Gun crime and school shootings are sadly still an occurrence in the present time, particularly in America, therefore, there are thousands of people who have been affected by such an event, whether directly or indirectly, as part of a local community. Some readers may find Nineteen Minutes challenging and upsetting, which is why I am not going to encourage everyone to read this book. However, Picoult has excelled herself with this novel, and it would be a shame for people not to read it. Fans will not be disappointed with her writing and will love all her characters, possibly even Peter!

Small Great Things (reviewed 2017)

Jodi Picoult has been my favourite author since I first came across her novels in 2008. With twenty-three novels under her belt, she continues to delight readers with her page-turning stories. Most of Picoult’s books contain a moral issue, often, but not always, in the form of medical ethics, as well as a hefty court case. Although following along similar lines, Small Great Things is a radical, revolutionary book, which, with great courage, Picoult has written with the intent to expose the reader to truths that most of us, as a society, are intentionally oblivious to.

The gist of the storyline is a baby dies whilst under the care of a nurse, prompting the grieving parents to take her to court with the accusation of murder. Although that sounds like an interesting story, it barely begins to describe what the book is about. The character on trial, Ruth, is an African American labour and delivery nurse. In this day and age, race is not so much of an issue. Yet, the parents of the baby are White Supremacists: seriously racist with the belief that white people are the master race. The father, Turk, refuses to let his wife and child be treated by Ruth, but circumstances result in her being the only nurse available to watch Davis. Unfortunately, it is at this moment that the baby happens to go into cardiac arrest. Although the reader knows that Ruth is not at fault, Turk insists she murdered his child – but is he accusing her of medical negligence or punishing her for being black?

Three characters, all with different views and experiences when it comes to racism, alternately narrate Small Great Things. Ruth and Turk represent the extremes on either side of the scale. Ruth experiences first-hand the negative impact of prejudice in the American system and society, not only through this court case but in everyday life as well. She also reveals the difficulties growing up in a predominately white environment, never feeling like she fitted in with her peers. On the other hand, Turk spent his teenage years attending KKK rallies, participating in a white power movement, and beating up anyone different: black, foreign, gay, Jewish and so forth.

The third character represents the majority of white people living in America. Kennedy is a public defender and the lawyer assigned to Ruth’s case. Like most of the population, she believes that she is not racist and persuades Ruth to leave the colour of her skin out of the argument. However, as she gets to know her client, she realizes that it is nigh on impossible to ignore racial prejudice.

Picoult shocks the reader on two accounts: one, the way that people of colour have been, and still are, treated; and two, the revelation that an invisible empire of White Supremacists is living amongst us. Yet, there is a third way in which Picoult provokes outrage – she indirectly accuses the reader of being racist, too.

There is always something to learn in a Jodi Picoult novel, for instance, medical terminology or how a court trial is conducted. Small Great Things provides more eye-opening information than her previous books, unveiling facts about such a controversial subject.

Through Kennedy, the reader’s eyes are opened to the racial discrimination, to which we all turn a blind eye. Ignored are the difficulties African Americans suffer when going shopping, applying for jobs, attending school, walking down the street, sitting on a bus, and so forth. Picoult asks me as a reader to think about how my life has been affected by racial discrimination: being served politely in shops because I am white, not having my ethnicity questioned when applying for college etc. Living in Britain, I have not experienced openly hateful comments or behaviours towards people with a different skin tone – I used to believe this was primarily an American problem. Yet, Small Great Things has made me think about the hierarchy of power within society, particularly in regards to the ethnicity of those at the top, compared with those at the bottom.

Jodi Picoult sat on the idea of writing a book about racism for well over a decade, yet, it is particularly apt that it is published now, with the current predicaments America is facing. Although we have come a long way in attempts to achieve equality for all – compare the trial in To Kill A Mockingbird to Picoult’s version – recent events have revealed that we are nowhere near.

Small Great Things will shock everyone who reads it regardless of their ethnicity and so forth. Many may find it uncomfortable to read, become upset or outraged, and even feel like they are being directly targeted. If this is the case, then good – it should do that. Everyone needs to read this book. On the one hand, it is a brilliant, well-told story with a beautiful, almost poetic narrative, and, on the other, it causes us to face up to the issues we are forever making light of or overlooking entirely. We have grown up believing that racism is a form of hatred when really it is about power. However Small Great Things makes you feel, it is worth reading, especially for the satisfying ending – one that you do not see coming.

Handle With Care (reviewed 2015)

As with most of Jodi Picoult’s novels, Handle With Care contains a deeply moral issue regarding abortion, especially in the case of the baby having a life-debilitating illness. Willow O’Keefe is six years old but only looks half that age. Suffering from Osteogenesis Imperfecta (Brittle Bones Disease), Willow will never live a normal life.

After a disastrous trip to Disney Land, Sean O’Keefe plans to sue the authorities for the way he and his wife, Charlotte, were treated after Willow broke yet another bone. However, once Charlotte learns about Wrongful Birth lawsuits, she decides to take action against her obstetrician with the argument that Willow’s diagnosis could have been discovered earlier in her pregnancy – the issue with this is it involves suing her best friend.

Picoult explores the arguments for and against what Charlotte is doing, and delves into how it affects the people involved. Friendships are broken, and relationships are damaged. As her family is torn apart, Willow feels unwanted and worried that she is the cause of all the tension. Through it all, Charlotte’s older daughter, Amelia, gets forgotten about and develops harmful ways of coping – bulimia.

The story is not solely based on the O’Keefe family. Picoult includes the character Marin, an attorney, and her search for her birth mother. This contrasts with the theme of abortion and makes the reader question the rights and wrongs of the dilemma.

Throughout the novel, Picoult creates a sense of foreboding. The narrative is written as if being spoken to Willow, however, the use of past tense implies that something horrible befalls her later in the book, regardless of the court case outcome.

Handle With Care is a novel that makes you think and plays with your emotions. Readers have a chance to develop their own opinions by reading the different characters’ perspectives. Another way in which Picoult connects with the reader is with the inclusion of recipes for baked goods. Charlotte used to be a baker before Willow was born, therefore, these extra bits fit well with the story. The recipes are also something readers could try out at home.

Jodi Picoult is a brilliant author with imaginative, thought-provoking ideas. Handle With Care fits in well with her other novels. It is quick to read, gripping and not quickly forgotten. This is a definite read for someone interested in ethical issues and those who like a novel that makes them think.

The Tenth Circle (reviewed 2016)

Admittedly I do not think this is one of Jodi Picoult’s best novels, however, that does not mean that The Tenth Circle is not a good book. Like all her stories, a large part of the storyline is about relationships, in this case, between father and daughter. On the other hand, The Tenth Circle stands out from the others as being a little different.

When Daniel Stone’s fourteen-year-old daughter Trixie accuses her ex-boyfriend of rape, he becomes an overprotective father, determined to keep his child from any more harm. What begins as a rape case spirals into a murder case with Daniel as the prime suspect. Suddenly the police turn to Trixie as an alternative suspect, and frightened of being accused, she runs away to Alaska – a place Daniel grew up as a child; a place he has been running away from all his life.

In a way, The Tenth Circle feels like two different stories: the rape and murder, and the flight to Alaska. Although the rape/murder case is the key focus of the plot, this story is also an insight into the relationship between father and daughter, and husband and wife.

“The real mistake he made was believing that you could lose someone in an instant, when in reality, it was a process that took months, years… lifetime.” Despite the Stone’s world turning upside down after a single event, Daniel realizes that he was losing his daughter a long time before that. She was growing up and keeping secrets. He barely knew the real Trixie. Likewise, his wife, Laura, was also keeping her fair share of secrets.

What made The Tenth Circle different from Picoult’s other novels is the inclusion of a comic book. It is an example of Daniel’s work as a comic book penciler (illustrated by Dustin Weaver in real life). This short graphic story represents Daniel and Trixie’s relationship. A daughter goes missing, and her father goes through hell and back to find her. It is interesting to compare the two stories and understand how Daniel feels. This comic book also allows the reader to have some fun. Within the illustrations are hidden letters, that when put together, spell out a quotation. It is the readers’ job to find and solve this puzzle.

Hell is a theme that kept coming up in this novel. As some may realize, The Tenth Circle is a brief reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante believed there were nine circles of Hell, each one representing a sin. Picoult has added a tenth circle, a circle for people who lie to themselves. The topic of Hell is emphasized through Laura Stone, a professor at Monroe College, Maine. She lectures on Classics, particularly on Dante’s Inferno. Picoult constantly alludes to this as a metaphor for the life Daniel and Trixie are experiencing.

Reading The Tenth Circle for a second time, I found I did not enjoy it as much. The element of surprise and plot twists were lost, as I already knew what was going to happen. For first readers, however, all of that is still to be experienced. Some may be put off or triggered by the rape content, but rest assured that Picoult deals with this delicate topic in the best way possible.

As fans will already know, you cannot read a Jodi Picoult book without learning something new. In this instance, you learn about Dante, forensic investigation and Yup’ik Eskimos – including intriguing words in the Yup’ik language. Due to this, Picoult’s writing is interesting to read, as well as delightful and meaningful due to her powerful metaphors.

Before reading this book, however, bear in mind that it contains rape, self-harm, drugs, suicide and murder. If any of the subjects are too upsetting, then I suggest you avoid this novel. On the other hand, if you are okay with delicate topics, I say go for it!

The Pact (reviewed 2016)

“Your son says they both meant to die. But he lived. What would you do?” As fans will already be aware, most of Jodi Picoult’s novels involve a “What if” or “What would you do?” scenario. The Pact is no different. This book contains all the elements you expect to find in a Picoult story: an ethical dilemma, family, relationships, love. However, The Pact is one of her more challenging reads – and it still was for me, reading it a second time.

Bainbridge, New Hampshire is an idyllic town that oozes a sense of security and safeness; it does not seem possible for crime to exist there. For a long time, that was the case, with the Harte and Gold family living as neighbours in a pragmatic family environment. Chris Harte and Emily Gold grew up together. They knew each other from birth and remained friends ever since, becoming intimate on reaching their teens. But suddenly, this serene atmosphere is shattered after seventeen-year-old Emily is found dead after being shot through the head, with Chris covered in blood beside her.

Despite defending himself by claiming that it was a joint suicide pact gone wrong, Chris is on trial for first-degree murder. The defence and the prosecution have to look deeply into the supposed crime and the events that lead up to it. Was Emily suicidal even though no one noticed? Did Chris love her, or was there a motive for murder? Whilst Chris anxiously awaits his verdict, the two families, the Hartes and the Golds, instead of pulling together in their time of grief, begin to crumble apart.

That is the general gist of the story, however, as with any Picoult book, there are smaller, subtle storylines dropped in here and there. The most prominent of these is the life of the defence attorney, Jordan McAfee, and his Private Investigator, Selena Damascus – two names that may be familiar to avid readers. These two are recurring characters in a couple of other novels by the same author. Instead of only being names dropped into a story for convenience sake, they have lives of their own. By reading all the books containing the pair, readers get to know them well and witness their growing relationship – providing they are read in the correct order, of course.

As for the key plot – the botched suicide pact – the story is told from a variety of perspectives, although all in the third person, from both after the event and before, going as far back as 1979, the year Emily was born, up until the present day, 1997. Naturally, the characters are going to reflect on the recent incidents to understand what has happened, but it is necessary to delve deeper into the past so that the reader can understand Chris and Emily’s relationship. It would be rather difficult otherwise to know who Emily was without any background knowledge, especially as she is already dead on the first page.

Picoult tackles the suicide theme delicately, showing full awareness that it is a difficult concept for people to read. She uses her characters to reveal the different ways people or societies react to the idea that someone would want to take their own life. The divide in the belief that suicide is either intrinsically right or wrong is evident from the characters who support Chris and those who accuse him of murder, maintaining that there was no way Emily would willingly take her own life. Some witnesses brought to the stand during the trial speak of suicide and depression from a medical and psychological point of view, fuelled by the in-depth research that Picoult has undertaken. Visiting a prison and experiencing what life is like for the inmates is an example of how far Picoult is willing to go to make her novels as realistic as possible.

As mentioned earlier, The Pact provokes the thought, “what would you do?” By engaging the reader in this way, Picoult encourages people to develop their interpretations and opinions about the storyline. She leaves hints and clues lying around to nudge our minds in a variety of directions. What was it that made Emily suicidal? Could her relationship with Chris, who for a long time was like a brother to her, be confusing the way she feels towards him and her family? Are there other factors? As for the outcome of the trial, readers will take either the prosecutor’s or the defence’s side – despite most of the book written in a way that paints Chris as wrongly accused. Picoult admits in an interview that even she was not sure how it should end and only made the decision by thinking about what the majority of readers would favour and the amount of hate mail she would receive if she did the opposite.

There is no denying that The Pact is a difficult book to read. Anyone who has experienced depression or suicidal thoughts will relate to Emily and Chris’ predicament, which may be too much to handle for some readers. On the other hand, if you have picked up this book knowing what to expect from Picoult’s writing, then you are less likely to be as shocked by the narrative. This is a book that will make you feel many emotions and question your own beliefs and opinions. Although not as beautifully written as her more recent novels, The Pact will suck you into the storyline and not let go until a long while after you have read the last page. Be prepared!


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Reuniting Rubens

For the first time in over 200 years, two landscape paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) have found themselves in the same room. Painted as a pair, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning parted ways in 1803, eventually ending up in the Wallace Collection and National Gallery, respectively. In partnership with VISITFLANDERS, the two paintings are temporarily on display at the Wallace Collection until 15th August 2021, after which they will separate once more. Attracting the likes of Jon Snow, who filmed his visit to the exhibition for Channel 4, the paintings have captured the attention of art lovers and tourists alike, providing what may be a once in a lifetime experience.

The name Rubens is usually associated with historical and mythological paintings, full of action and voluptuous women, rather than the idyllic landscapes shown at the Wallace Collection. Yet, landscape painting had intrigued Rubens since his youth and one of his first teachers specialised in the area. To succeed as an artist, Rubens needed to paint what his commissioners and buyers wanted. Landscape painting was not a respected theme where Rubens lived in Antwerp, so he focused on fleshy figures depicting historical moments in the typical Flemish Baroque tradition.

Towards the end of his career, Rubens moved away from the busy city lifestyle to devote himself to landscape painting. The majority of these Rubens produced as a hobby rather than for profit. Not many knew about the extent of his artistic talents until after he died in 1640.

In 1592, Rubens was serving as an emissary for the Spanish crown. At 53 years old and a widower, he longed to settle down in his homeland. Unlike many artists of his day, Rubens had a considerable amount of money, having worked for the Archdukes of the Spanish Netherlands, Charles I of England, Philip IV of Spain and Queen Marie de Medici of France. After completing his negotiations in England on behalf of Spain, Rubens returned home to Antwerp, where he married 16-year-old Hélène Fourment (1614-73).

Following his marriage, Rubens contented himself by painting his young wife and growing family, whilst spending time in his large garden. Rubens enjoyed painting for pleasure, unrestrained by commissions and deadlines. Throughout his career, Rubens was restricted to the preferences of his patrons and buyers, but in his retirement he had the freedom to choose his subject matter. His love of landscapes resurfaced and he longed for the countryside, away from the pressures of commercial and city life.

In 1635, Rubens purchased an eight-acre country estate in Elewijt, Flemish Brabant. The house, known as the Castle of Het Steen, cost Rubins 93,000 florins and gave him the right to the title of Lord of Het Steen. A three-hour ride (half an hour by car) took Rubens from his home in Antwerp to his “manorial residence with a large stone house and other fine buildings in the form of a castle.” It also had a garden, an orchard, a lake and extensive grassland. The family used the estate as their summer home, returning to the city during the autumn.

Built in the typical Flemish style, the manor house had gabled roofs, red-bricked walls and a crenellated tower. The latter has since been demolished, and the house has also undergone remodelling and renovation over the past centuries. Rubens captured the building as it looked during his day in the paintings, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning. 

The extensive views around Het Steen provided Rubens with the perfect backdrop for many landscape paintings. Although he had produced many landscapes before moving to the estate, his nephew Philip admitted Rubens made the purchase intending to study and paint the landscape. Rubens kept most of these artworks, displaying them at Het Steen. As a result, not many knew of the extent of his oeuvre until after his death.

“Having bought the seignory of Steen, between Brussels and Malines in the year 1630 [sic] he took great pleasure living there in solitude, in order to paint vividly and au naturel the surrounding mountains, plains, valleys and meadows, at the rising and setting of the sun, up to the horizon.” – Philip Rubens

After producing many landscapes, which explored composition, figure and animal placement, light and darkness, and so forth, Rubens finally painted his two most famous landscapes. The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning represent Rubens zenith of his achievements in landscape painting, evidenced by their sheer size and panoramic content.

A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning

In A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, usually shortened to Het Steen, the house is set to the far left, making the extensive open plains the main focus of the painting. The colours suggest it is late summer or early autumn on a sunny morning, although puddles and clouds hint at a recent rainstorm. Whilst the house is a faithful representation, Rubens elevated the view of the land between the foreground and the horizon to produce a continuous panoramic sweep.

On the left, a man drives a cart away from the house, carrying a woman and a trussed calf. Closer to the building is a group of people, which many believe represent Rubens’ family. In the foreground, a hunter and his dog hide behind a large tree stump, keeping a steady gaze on a bevy of partridges. This activity, combined with the altocumulus clouds, gives away the time of day, as does the cart, which is presumably on its way to market. In the distance, maids milk the cows in the pastures.

The Rainbow Landscape

Het Steen sits in the far distance in The Rainbow Landscape, which provides a view of the estate from the other side of the fields. Once again, Rubens raised the level of the viewpoint to encompass the many topographical features. The scene in this painting takes place later in the day after farmhands have already had time to create two haystacks. Yet, the cart carrying more hay in the left-hand corner suggests their workday is far from over. Some art historians propose Rubens based the appearance of the cart driver on his likeness, although it is unlikely he ever contributed to the farm work.

The cart driver greets two milkmaids, one who is balancing a pitcher on her head. Their smiling faces suggest happy workers, which compliments the idyllic landscape. Meanwhile, a herdsman goes about his work, herding cows along a path beside the stream, contrasting with the lively ducks playing in the water. Both the ducks and cows are similar to those in other paintings by Rubens, suggesting he did not paint them from life but memory or imagination.

Whilst there is a lot of activity in the lower half of the painting, it is the sky that captures the viewer’s attention. Spanning the width of the landscape is a double-arced rainbow, which is an unusual feature in artworks from this era. Artists were discouraged from depicting rainbows because their fleeting appearances were difficult to portray accurately. Rubens attempt is impressive, yet it is not true to nature. He chose not to represent its full-colour spectrum, obscuring sections with clouds instead.

The rainbow hints at the recent storm, whose dark clouds are still visible in the distance. The phenomenon also had religious connotations, symbolising God’s divine blessing. In the Bible (Genesis 9:11-15), God made a covenant with his people, promising never to flood the world again. This promise followed the well-known story of Noah’s Ark.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. (Genesis 9:12-15, NIV)

Art historians believe Rubens produced Het Steen and The Rainbow Landscape to be displayed together because they are linked by their subject matter, scale, size and composition. The English landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837) agreed, saying some years after the two paintings were separated: “When pictures painted as companions are separated, the purchaser of one, without being aware of it, is sometimes buying only half a picture. Companion pictures should never be parted…”

Both paintings have similar motifs, such as milkmaids, wagons, cows and fowl. These, along with the inclusion of the manor house, albeit almost unnoticeable in The Rainbow Landscape, suggests the landscapes depicts the same area from different perspectives. Although the paintings represent different times of day, when hung together, they complete a cycle of a late summer’s day.

Another connection between the two paintings is the way Rubens constructed the landscapes. Using X-radiography and infra-red reflectography, the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection have discovered that Rubens produced the paintings in three stages. Rubens began both compositions on a medium-sized panel, upon which he depicted the middle ground leading to the horizon. Rubens then added or commissioned someone to add extensions to the bottom and sides of the panel. Upon these, he extended the landscapes, making them more panoramic. A final extension to the top, bottom and sides, gave the landscapes a dimension of 136 cm x 236 cm (54 in x 93 in).

Careful analysis of the two paintings has revealed images below the top layer of paint, which indicates Rubens developed the composition gradually. Unlike his commissioned work, Rubens did not need to rush and had no deadline. X-rays show Rubens included a seated milkmaid and herdsman on the original panel of The Rainbow Landscape but painted over them after extending the boards. A half-rainbow decorated the sky, which tells us Rubens always intended to include it in the landscape. After increasing the size of the work, Rubens repainted the trees and added the herdsmen and cattle by a river. The ducks, horses and wagon joined the scene after the final extension.

With more space above the horizon to play with, Rubens expanded the rainbow to sweep across the sky. Although it remained a double-arced rainbow, only a section of the second arc is visible in the top right-hand corner. Rubens added touches of blue, pink and yellow to the trees, river and ground to suggest a reflection of the rainbow, although, in reality, the rainbow would make no such impression.

The construction of A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning has similar paint handling and attention to detail as its companion. During the first stage of the painting, Rubens filled the space with open pastures interspersed with trees. As the boards grew, so did the landscape, incorporating a bridge, stream, tree trunk and hunter. Only in the final stage did Rubens paint the house and add the other figures and cart to the composition.

Unlike The Rainbow Landscape, which developed gradually with the expansion of the boards, the painting of Het Steen changed dramatically in the final stages. During the first two stages of the painting process, the composition was typical of Rubens’ landscapes, revealing idyllic farmland and a peaceful environment. When he began the painting, he had no intention of including his house, yet it became a key feature during the latter stages. This element, with the suggestion of the building in the background of The Rainbow Landscape, is what convinces many art historians that the paintings belong together.

Shortly after Rubens died in 1640, the two paintings appeared in a sales catalogue with 312 other works of art from his collection. A version of the catalogue translated for Charles I describes the landscapes as “A great landschap after the life, with little figures in’t uppon a board,” (Het Steen) and “A great landschap where it raines with little Cowes in it” (The Rainbow Landscape). Since they were listed one after the other suggests Rubens’ family intended them to stay together, which they did for many years.

In 1691, both paintings hung in the palace of Juan Gaspar Enríquez de Cabrera, the 10th Admiral of Castile (1625-91) in Madrid, after which they appeared in Genoa in the early 18th century. Records state they belonged to a Genoese banker to the Spanish Crown, Bartolomeo Saluzzo (1651-1705), who bequeathed his art collection to his sons. Constantino Balbi (1676-1741) purchased the landscapes in 1706 and hung them in the Palazzo Balbi. In 1802, art dealers William Buchanan (1777-1864) and Arthur Champernowne (1767-1819) purchased the paintings and brought them to London, where they were displayed at an Oxdenden Street gallery. They quickly became the talking point of the artistic circle in the capital.

Despite attempts to sell the two landscapes as a pair, Buchanan and Champernowne were unsuccessful. Instead, they sold Het Steen to Lady Margaret Beaumont for £1500 in 1803. Little did they know the paintings would not appear in the same room again until 2020. Lady Margaret gave the artwork as a present to her husband Sir George, who pronounced it the “finest landscape I believe [Rubens] ever painted.” On his death in 1823, George Beaumont bequeathed Het Steen and other paintings in his collection to the National Gallery.

In 1815, Champernowne sold The Rainbow Landscape to art collector George Watson-Taylor (1771-1841), who, in turn, sold it to Horatio Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1783-1858) for 2,600 guineas. Walpole hung the painting in the Principle Dining Room at Wolterton Hall in Norfolk, where many people admired it. Allegedly, George IV (1762-1830) attempted to purchase the painting from Walpole shortly before his death in 1830. The landscape remained in Lord Orford’s possession until he decided to sell it in 1856.

Sir Charles Eastlake (1793-1865), the first Director of the National Gallery, attended Lord Orford’s sale intending to reunite Rubens’ landscapes. Unfortunately, one of the wealthiest collectors in Europe, Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-70), was also in attendance and outbid the director. Lord Hertford paid £4,550 for The Rainbow Landscape, which he hung in his London residence, Manchester House. After his death, his son Sir Richard Wallace (1818-90) inherited the house and its contents, thus becoming the new owner of the painting. Wallace extended the house to create a large gallery where he installed the landscape and other notable paintings. After his death, the collection was bequeathed to the nation. The house opened to the public as the Wallace Collection, and The Rainbow Landscape has hung here ever since.

Thanks to the collaboration between the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection, the public have once again been able to view both landscapes in the same room. Unfortunately, the exhibition is ending soon, and the paintings will separate once more. There is speculation that Rubens’ two great landscapes may be reunited permanently in the future. Hopefully, we will not need to wait 200 years to make this a reality.

It is a shame that the exhibition coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. Fewer people than expected have visited the Wallace Collection to see the two landscapes in situ. Yet, the display made the national news, proving that the story of two landscape paintings, reunited, at last, has touched the hearts of thousands of people.

Het Steen, now known as Elewijt Castle or Rubenskasteel, still stands. It was briefly used as a prison in 1792 before being abandoned. In 1955, the current owner restored the building, although the tower seen in Rubens’ painting was unsalvageable.

RUBENS: REUNITING THE GREAT LANDSCAPES is open until 15th August 2021 at the Wallace Collection, London. Tickets are free with a suggested donation of £5.


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