The Needle in the Blood
by Sarah Bower
Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
In The Needle in the Blood, Sarah Bower imagines how the Bayeux Tapestry may have been created, but the Tapestry serves more as setting and symbol than as central purpose. This sophisticated novel is about love, ambition, fury, forgiveness, misunderstanding and again and always, love.
Gytha is a serving woman to Edith, King Harold of England's common-law wife. As the novel opens on October 14, 1066, Harold is dead, butchered in the Battle of Hastings. William the Conqueror's half brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, refuses to deliver the dead king's body to Edith and Harold's mother for burial. A few days later, as Gytha watches Edith and her court ladies carted away like criminals, she believes she has lost everything. But within her talent for embroidery lie the seeds of a new life.
Odo decides to commemorate the Norman victory with an embroidered wall hanging. His sister scours the ravaged country for women with the skill to create it. For those chosen, it is a strange and bitter project. Gytha says, "I refuse to sew lies." But she sees this as a chance to get close enough to Odo to kill him. Keeping either of her resolves proves a slippery undertaking.
The bishop's formidable charm is less of a stumbling block than his innate, if incomplete, integrity: "'You have made Bayeux very pretty,' he remarks, an edge to his voice which makes it sound as though the prettification of Bayeux is some kind of misdemeanour. 'Quite a fairy city.'"
The Needle in the Blood is a love story, but Bower takes her time with it, developing her characters with depth, insight and compassion before thrusting them into the predicament of a forbidden love affair. Along the way, she slips in imaginative possibilities for how and why various features of the Tapestry came to be, but these never dominate the story. That is for her characters, as Bower reaches for a more timeless truth than the merely factual. (2007, 576 pages, including a brief Afterword explaining where the story departs from the historical record)
More about The Needle in the Blood from Powell's Books
Other Novels about the Norman Conquest:
Odo's Hanging by Peter Benson (1993), about Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, and the creation of the Bayeux Tapestry. More info
Lord of Sunset by Parke Godwin (1998), about Harold and his common-law wife Edith. More info
Harold the King by Helen Hollick (2000), about the building tensions among Harold Godwinesson, King Edward of England, and William the Bastard of Normandy. More info
Nonfiction about the Bayeux Tapestry:
The Mystery of the Bayeux Tapestry by David J. Bernstein (1986), used by Sarah Bower in researching The Needle in the Blood. More info
1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry by Andrew Bridgeford (2005), an examination of information encoded into the Tapestry's embroidery which the author believes undermines the Norman story of the Conquest to present a very different Anglo-Saxon version. More info
The Bayeux Tapestry by Lucien Musset (2005), a color reproduction of the complete tapestry, with detailed commentary. More info
The Bayeux Tapestry: The Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks (2008), explores the possibility that Harold's common-law wife Edith commissioned the Tapestry. More info
Animated Bayeux Tapestry
The Full Bayeux Tapestry
at Hastings1066.com. See Image #8 for the picture "Ubi unus clericus et Aelfgiva," mentioned in The Needle in the Blood.
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