Charming novel, imperialist attitude

This Rough Magic - Mary Stewart

This novel was written 50 years ago, but with one exception, it reads as fresh now as it did then. The story is Stewart’s classic romantic suspense. There is a love interest and danger, a villain and Shakespeare, a plucky heroine and a bevy of charming male sidekicks. Everything unfolds on the pastoral island of Corfu, the island baked by the sun and kissed by the sea. The author even included a dolphin in her enchanting tale, and the creature feels organic to the milieu, one more cute male for the female protagonist’s admiring retinue.

Lucy is a poor, second-rate London actress. Fortunately, her sister is married to a very rich man, and Lucy is invited to her sister’s summer villa on Corfu to lift her bruised spirits, after her third-rate play folded (un)expectedly.  Her idyllic vacation is interrupted by the sudden, suspicious death of a local fisherman, and from this point on, the action rolls very fast.

The author tries to paint the heroine in lively colors, but it doesn’t really work. Lucy seems rather bland, while the male characters revolving around her are vivid and distinct. The old thespian, Sir Julian Gale, is a British theatrical icon, an object of near-worship for Lucy. She reveres him and feels awed when she learns that he is her neighbor on Corfu. As she gets to know the aging actor, she begins to see the truth behind his legend: a tired and sweet old man, recovering from a personal tragedy, while his talent sparkles even when he is not trying.

A young Greek man Adoni, Sir Julian’s servant, is an embodiment of a Greek hero, beautiful and undaunted, a dream guy for any girl. Sir Julian’s son, Max, is a gruff musician, ruthlessly protecting his father from prying eyes and malicious tongues. Unlike Sir Julian, who welcomes Lucy without reservations, Max is surly with her to the point of rudeness, at least in the beginning of the book.

His crusty temper feels incongruous on the luxurious and bucolic landscape of Corfu, the island steeped in myths and history. The beautiful groves, warm Ionian Sea, fragrant flowers and mysterious caves form a background so strong, it becomes a character in its own right. It affects the story and flavors it, and no character in the book is immune to its sun-drenched charms.

The love line of the tale seems abrupt, without gradual development. One moment, the hero and heroine dislike each other, the next, they’re kissing and more. In contrast, the suspense line progresses gradually. Each twist of the plot raises the tension, each interaction of the heroine with the villain deepens her understanding of his perversity and her determination to see him punished. If she sometimes behaves in a silly way and puts herself unnecessarily at risk – well, I suppose the story demands it. She wouldn’t be the protagonist if she didn’t get herself into trouble … and back out. 

Overall, I enjoyed this novel. Although the beginning is a bit slow, the finale is grand and explosive. The language flows easily, the storyline is masterful, the scenery picturesque, a feast for all senses, and the characters are delightful in their variety, even the bad guy – he is delightfully sinister.

The only problem I see is the author’s superior (or maybe colonialist) attitude towards the Greek. She portrays them en masse as simplistic, unsophisticated folk, peasants to the refined British. It rubbed me the wrong way, even though all the Greek characters are invariably kind and honorable. Such attitude might’ve been acceptable in 1964 but it’s definitely repulsive now.

Otherwise, a really good novel. Recommended.