Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"The Aviary Gate"

Katie Hickman is the author of two best-selling history books, Courtesans and Daughters of Britannia, and two travel books, Travels with a Circus, which was shortlisted for the 1993 Thomas Cook Travel Book Award, and Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon. Her first novel is The Quetzal Summer, for which she was listed for the Sunday Times Young British Writer of the Year award.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Aviary Gate, and reported the following:
Bizarrely, page 69 of my new novel The Aviary Gate is actually strangely representative. In fact, if I had to pick one page myself, it might well be this one.

It describes a scene from the point of view of the novel's heroine, a young English girl called Celia Lamprey, who at the end of the sixteenth century was thought to have been drowned in a shipwreck, but is then found to have survived and been taken into captivity, and then sold into the Ottoman Sultan's harem as a concubine. The scene which takes place on page 69 is the culmination of a long passage describing how Celia is prepared for her first encounter with the Sultan. She is bathed and depilated, perfumed and dressed, and then by accident (or is it an accident?) given a dose of opium. Previous to this, one of her attendants has given her a crash course in how to please the Sultan (a practical demonstration, carried out on a pear, but not leaving anything to Celia's terrified imagination) - just at the moment when the opium is beginning to kick in.

A scream of laughter, high-pitched and shrill, rose in Celia's throat, only to die, still-born, against her lips. At the same time she became aware that something strange was happening to the rest of her body. A feeling of warmth, quite different from the sense of prickling shame which had consumed her just moments before, enveloped her: a feeling of lassitude, warmth and physical ease. .... At that moment there was a banging - the sound of staves on wood - in the corridor outside. 'They're ready for you," Cariye Lala dried her lips sedately with a corner of cloth. 'Come: it's time.'

The novel is not in the least pornographic (although from page 69 you might well think it) but I hope it is sexy, and also true to life. Part of the joy of writing this novel was the lengthy researches I did into what life may really have been like for the women, all of whom were technically slaves, who entered this fabled place. I think in reality it was probably for more like a rather strict boarding school, or even bizarrely, a convent, than the lurid palace for naked dancers that is so often portrayed in nineteenth century paintings and the like. Read it and prepare to be surprised.

The rest of the novel is both a mystery story - there is an attempted poisoning on page 1 - and a love story. Will Celia Lamprey be re-united with her former lover, the English merchant Paul Pindar, who has been sent as part of an English diplomatic mission to renew trading rights with the Sultan? There is also a contemporary story, about a young woman academic, Elizabeth, who is researching captivity narratives and trying to piece together the ultimate fate of Celia Lamprey. One blogger has described the novel as being a love story between Elizabeth and Celia. I wonder if you'll agree?
Read an excerpt from The Aviary Gate, and watch a video of the author discussing the book.

Learn more about the author and her work at Katie Hickman's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue