Historical fiction is founded on paradox: past generations were so different from and yet in some ways so similar to our own. In Robert Irwin’s extraordinary tale a larger paradox looms. Amply researched yet unceasingly insistent on its own fictionality, Irwin’s latest novel is like an intricate medieval tapestry or multicoloured stained-glass window, promising neither truth nor falsehood, only wonder.
It begins with the death and miraculous resurrection of Anthony Woodville at the Battle of Towton in 1461 and ends with his beheading in 1483. This is no spoiler, since Woodville is an actual historical figure, though the supernatural event at Towton signals the factual ambivalence of all that follows. The real-life Woodville was himself somewhat slippery: having been on the losing Lancastrian side at Towton, he went over to the Yorkist cause and became the brother-in-law of Edward IV, before perishing in the bloody ascendancy of Richard III. The power politics of the Wars of the Roses therefore serve as underlying fabric for Irwin’s tapestry. The novel’s energy, however, resides not so much in the weaving of suspense or the architecture of plot as in the sheer accumulation of rich detail.
Alongside writing fiction, Irwin is distinguished as a scholar of Arabic literature, and while his seven novels have been markedly varied in style and tone, they have often borne a flavour of One Thousand and One Nights. Magic and fantasy, dreams and visions, stories within stories: Irwin layers these