Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Review of 'Dance of the Dandelion' by Dina Slieman

★★★☆☆
"Love's quest leads her the world over.
Dandelion Dering was born a peasant in the English village of Arun, but her soul yearned for another life, another world. One filled with color and music, with adventure and passion... with more.
Haunted by childhood memories, Dandelion determines to find a better existence than the life every peasant in the village contents themselves with. Even if her sweetheart William's predictions prove true, and her journey leads straight to heartache.
From her sleepy hamlet to the intrigue of castle life, from the heart of London to the adventurous seas, Dandelion flees from the mistakes of her past, always seeking that something, that someone who will satisfy her longings.
Will Dandelion ever find the rhythm to her life's dance... or did she leave her chance for true love at home in Arun village?"
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Opinion: Dina Slieman's debut novel seems to be essentially something of a 'coming of age' story for the heroine Dandelion (not a name I liked), which also happens to chart aspects of her spiritual journey. Dandelion herself (Dandy for short) was, to my recollection not a character I ever really warmed to.  The novel itself, though enjoyable enough (and though it was set near the area where I live)  is not one what I would call exceptional, and I wouldn't necessarily be in a hurry to read it again. 

Some of the details about the lives and everyday struggles of Dandy and her neighbours were interesting, with some colourful and believable characters, and the story was original and fairly well written, but I did have a number of issues.
The punctuating of the first person narrative with Dandelion's 'flashbacks' from childhood could prove a little distracting and, whilst the descriptions of the lives and struggles of Medieval peasants could be interesting enough, there were a number of historical issues which blighted this part of the story.

One issue I had personally had (not only with this novel personally) was that the English characters seemed altogether too Americanised, in their mannerisms, speech and sometimes outlook. This is something which irks me in historical novels generally, not specifically in this one, and is very much a personal issue. 

History: Though the story takes place in the early 1300s, and whilst some of the details seem consistent with that period, others could be more in keeping a Regency period setting. I am quite certain people generally did not ride in carriages at this time, so the description of them travelling thus through the cobbled streets of London seemed rather out of place for the time period. 

The second issue I had was with the status of Dandy and her family, who are implied  to have been free peasants of the emerging Middle Classes in one place, and then were being called ‘villiens’ who were tied to the land the next. There were significant differences between these two groups namely that the latter were essentially unfree serfs and the property of their local landlord. So the seeming conflation of the two could prove rather confusing.
Perhaps though I am being too pedantic in this regard and the author did the best she job she could with the historical material and research. 

Christianity/Morality: There are a couple of sexual references in this novel, though nothing was graphically described as I recall. A number of the characters including Dandy engaged in extra or pre-marital liaisons.
For me, the most worrisome aspect of the religious content of the novel was the prominence given to mysticism. At least two prominent minor characters are based on historical mystics There was much emphasis on what people felt that God wanted of them, or their emotions where religious matters were concerned, and much praise was given to ‘ecstatic experiences'. 
Such are a rather flimsy basis for faith, not least because they can be subjective and misleading. Furthermore, they are of dubious spiritual origin with potentially dangerous implications.  

It also seemed to be implied in one place that people of religions other than Christianity who `found their own way to God' could make it to heaven without necessarily believing in Christ. Though one of the characters make it clear that the God worshiped by Muslims was different in attributes and character to the Christian God, so was not the same as the Christian God as Dandelion believed, there was no mention probably the most important difference between the two religions- that Islam teaches God has no son. 

Altogether, this was a decent novel, with a fairly original storyline and good in places, though it could have benefited from more research. Mainly due to the religious issue highlighted above, particularly the mysticism, I cannot really recommend it.

9 comments:

  1. I loved this book. It will be one I read again, and I don't say that about a lot of books. Dina Sleiman really captivated me with her almost musical way of telling a story. I loved Dandelion's adventures, and even after having read it several months ago, I still get that same feeling when I think about it.

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  2. Hi Thanks for the reply.
    I in no way meant to imply that Mrs Sleiman was not a good writer or was lacking in talent, the book just wasn't my 'cup of tea' to put it it a British way. I think sometimes where historical fiction is concoerned I am sometimes too pedantic for my own good, and hope you may have the patience to bear with me in this regard.

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  3. Well, I'm not going to argue with your opinions, since they are yours, and you have a right to them. But I did want to apologize for the potato mistake that you mentioned in some of your other reviews. After reading your review I researched it, and indeed you were correct. Unfortunately medieval resources in the states are very limited, many mixing together the medieval and renaissance periods and probably reinforcing those misconceptions you mentioned. Americans relate potatoes with their European ancestors not their native land, and evidently this is a common misconception. I feel pretty dumb about that. You'd think we'd learn it in school. I did the best with what I had available and did spend several years researching. I sincerely wish I had the resources available to me that I'm sure you have there in England.

    My two books which are being shopped to publishers now are both set in American and in my own state of Virginia. So hopefully I'll do a better job.

    On the religious aspect, I will just say, I think you misunderstood some of what I said in the book. I would never say that there are many paths to God, I only intended to express that those who never heard of Christ might be judged by their hearts. I theology I do stand by, although I know the opinions of others might differ.

    Finally, I would like to mention that when I asked for your opinion and help, I thought perhaps you would share it with me privately first so that I might learn from you :( Sorry to have been a disappointment.

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  4. Hi Dina

    I don’t know if you have seen the first or the revised version of the review because I cut out the bit about potatoes as I thought that was being too finicky, and some of the misconceptions about the Middle ages are common throughout Europe and other parts of the world too, and not only America. In mentioning these I was more intended to correct the misconceptions themselves as opposed to you or anyone else personally.

    The part about peasants and villains I did find a little confusing and I thought perhaps other people would too but I also stated in the revised version above that I thought you had ‘done your best with the resources you had available’ just as you said.

    As I said to Suzie I am way too pedantic when it comes to historical novels and you are right to take me to task about it nor would I expect anyone to apologise.

    I may well revise the review again to make any remarks about the history more general and less specific to you.
    As to the religious aspects, they did concern me rather. I felt the ‘many paths to God thing’ was implied, but perhaps I was mistaken and that was a part of Dandelion’s own confusion in the early part of her religious journey? I have always been a more than a little sceptical of Christian mysticism so again that is my own viewpoint and the remarks were meant to be about that and not a personal attack.

    I didn’t really think you would want to be bombarded with messages from me about things I saw that might not be totally correct, and I apologise most sincerely if anything I say in my review has caused offence or upset.

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  5. It's okay, and I did notice you changed the tone of the review. As to what you said here, that's exactly true. I didn't consider Dandelion to be a Christian until at least when she was in London, and not completely committed to Christ until after she was living in the convent. Like so many people today, she thought she might find answers in other places, but failed. Similarly, my reason for having the sinful priest talk about forgiveness was to illustrate part of why she missed the message early in her life. She was getting good info, but from a flawed source. I don't know about England, but in America many people turn away from Christianity because of hypocrisy in the church. It was important to me that readers understand that while the source of the message is imperfect, the message itself is still true. But this was part of Dandy's journey in not finding God for many years.

    As for the mysticism, I knew I was taking risks with that, so it doesn't bother me when people complain. I can tell you are a very logical, rational, thinking person. So it makes sense that you relate to God on that level. And truth and the word are vitally important. On the other hand, I am a feeling person, and logic and reason alone would never be enough to truly convince my heart. I think for feeling people like me, we need to have a very personal experience with God. Once we have, nothing will ever make us doubt our faith.

    Finally, since we're talking about it, Dandelion and William's families were always intended to be villeins. His brothers escaped, and I found records that if a villein went a certain period of time without being captured, they were considered free. As for Dandelion and William themselves, my understanding was that they were young enough not to have signed papers tying them to the land yet in the beginning of the book, but perhaps they were automatically obligated to it and I could have gone awry in that area.

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  6. Ok thanks for correcting me in that regard and I think I was too jumping to conclusions with the remark about repentance.
    I encountered a passage like this in another 'Christian' book once in which it WAS being made fun of, so I suppose I took it the wrong way and I apologise and may change that bit when I get around to it.

    Thinking about it now I think your representation of the above was quite authentic as the corruption and hypocrisy of churchmen was something which people were really beginning to rally against in the 14th century.
    People do tell me I am perhaps a little too logical for my own good but I think those who define themselves as 'rationalists' would not say so. I personally do have an issue with bases faith on feelings alone as I know how wrong my own feelings can be. so I think it needs more than that.

    Mysticism will always be a bone of contention with me, and I fear something I will never be able to endorse.
    As for the matter of villieins is is a confusing and rather sticky issue anyway, so I am not surprised if you might have got things wrong in this regard. I sometimes do too.
    I think it was meant to be a year and a day villeins had so stay away to become 'freemen' but there were other factors that could distinguish them too.

    People born as villeins were generally meant to stay as such but there were ways of escaping from this such as the above and also buying the land that one worked. It's all quite complicated and I don’t want to end up giving a history lesson. (There is a good book which covers subjects like this called 'The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer)
    Again I did not mean to denigrate your writing ability at all. I have no right as my own writing skills are almost non-existent and really the medieval period is one of the hardest eras to write about in my view.
    As I say you are always welcome to correct me and I really do think I ought to change my pedantic ways a little.
    All the best

    Sussexmaiden

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  7. No hard feelings. Although, if you felt inclined change some of what you said, especially about the religious aspects, in your goodreads or amazon reviews, I would be relieved. I know I'm not a history expert, but I wouldn't want people to think I was undermining Biblical truth, because I do feel strongly about that.

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  8. Ok will do though I think I may still mention the mysticism bit.

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