Donna Jo Napoli,
(Atheneum, 2007)

Eager romantics, take heed: Donna Jo Napoli's latest, Hush: An Irish Princess' Tale, is no fairy tale. There is no magic, no romance and no fairy godmother. It neither begins with "once upon a time" nor ends with "happily ever after."

Rather, this is the gritty survival story of a historical princess who is kidnapped and forced into slavery. The setting is Ireland, 900 AD, and the princess is Melkorka, beautiful 15-year-old daughter of the king of Downpatrick. On a fateful trip to Dublin, a Viking settlement at the time, her brother's hand is cut off in a careless bet between Viking boys. A scheme for revenge sets off a chain of events that culminates in Mel's capture by slave traders.

Once a sheltered princess with slaves in her household, Melkorka becomes just another prisoner on a slave ship bound for Scandinavia. Life aboard the ship is brutal and uncertain, and only the comradeship of fellow slaves keeps Mel from despair. She soon discovers she has one small and unexpected power over her captors: her steadfast silence. Feared to be an enchantress, she becomes something of an enigma to the men around her. But even suspected enchantresses are not wholly spared. Robbed of everything that was her birthright, Mel's silence and ability to endure are about to be tested to their limits.

Distinguished by Napoli's clear, first-person, present-tense prose, Melkorka's journey makes for compelling, if not especially comforting, reading. Her narrative voice is sensitive but unflinching, and sets up no moral absolutes, even regarding the slavers and the Icelandic man who eventually buys her. Although several stories out of Irish mythology are recounted within Mel's narrative, a different type of heroism becomes apparent in her quiet determination to survive, to protect those weaker than she and to uphold her friendships with the other slaves. She's not your usual anachronistically spunky princess, but she is a deeply sympathetic character whose growing maturity and strength form the backbone of her tale.

In Hush, Napoli sheds light on a dark and unfamiliar period of history, capturing its mud, its unwashed wool and bodies, and its violence -- but also the bonds of family and friends, the pleasures of a bright red wool cloak and the power of a well-told tale. Despite these small joys, however, Hush is not a happy book. In keeping with its pervasive realism, Melkorka's world is not a fair one: her suffering produces no ultimate reward, and the comprehensiveness of what she loses -- not only her title, but also her family, freedom and innocence -- is painful even to think about.

Plot-wise, I would have appreciated a bit more resolution, but that's realism for you. There's no doubt that this is a strong, emotionally resonant work that reflects Napoli's considerable strengths as a writer. A thoughtful afterword reveals that Melkorka is based on a historical figure, a footnote in the annals of male history. Napoli has transformed it into a fully realised story of quiet, unsung female heroism and set it amidst a violent and turbulent world in which female friendships -- between sisters, mothers and fellow slaves -- make an all-important difference.

With Hush, Melkorka's silence can finally be broken.

review by
Jennifer Mo

27 October 2007

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