Thursday, July 20, 2017

Threads: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn by Nell Gavin

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It's impossible to know the real truth about Anne Boleyn because much of the stories about her are written by her known enemies and detractors.  Gavin strives to give Anne a voice upon the moment of her death.  As she reexamines her life and relationship to Henry Tudor, the truth about what they mean to each other is revealed. Through the centuries, Anne and Henry are always together and there is a reason for this - they are soulmates.  What happens to love when you're soulmate is the one responsible for your death? 

I will admit to being instantly draw to Thread: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn the moment I saw the title. I've long been a history buff and have been quite fascinated with the British monarchy.  Thread: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn is fantasy in that it assumes thoughts and idea which historians most certainly could not verify and because it enlarges the story of Anne and Henry to encompass various incarnations throughout the centuries. Anne herself appears in ancient Egypt, in Europe as part of a traveling Romani circus, the 1800's New York, and in Brooklyn during the seventies. Each new life is a chance to grow and to pay for the sins of the last life.  As a prostitute working in the Valley of the Kings in ancient Egypt, Anne would amuse herself by mocking and bullying a fellow prostitute who had an extra finger, causing her to be born as Anne Boleyn and also have an extra finger which she would strive for the entirety of her short to life to hide. 

Because this is a historical fantasy, certain liberties were clearly taken with Anne and Henry's lives. Thread: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn is not an academic text and most certainly does not read like one.  Anyone familiar with the history however might enjoy the speculation into what Anne might have been thinking when Henry broke off her engagement, or her loss at dealing with the fact that despite her supposed power, so much was really outside of her control.  I'm not sure that Gavin's tone always rang true but that didn't detract my enjoyment with the story.

I found that when the story switched to Ancient Egypt in particular, Gavin really set a beautiful stage and I could picture all of her characters vividly and their setting. Henry as a gay male prostitute who craved the love of a family because he was rejected by his own, made sense to me. I do however wish that the only LGBT representation of sexual identity had not been reduced to prostitution and dependency on a straight woman for companionship. 

The premise of Thread: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn, is that Anne keeps returning to earth after each death to pay a penance for the mistakes that she made in each previous life and to continue to grow as a soul. Anne learns early on that she and Henry are soulmates and have been twins, husband and wife, friends many times over. They are continually drawn to each other.  Also in Anne's orbit are many people that she met in her lifetime as a queen. Some come back as her children and still others are her friends.  Percy, Anne's betrothed for instance was a regular customer of hers when she was a prostitute in ancient Egypt, while Katherine turned out to be her daughter. 

Obviously reincarnation is not a new idea, nor is the concept of learning lessons with each additional life new. I'm not disturbed by the idea of Anne and Henry being soulmates, particularly because they had varied relationships in the different lives.  What I am disturbed by is Anne reviewing her lives in order to find a way to forgive Henry.  By every definition possible, Henry Tudor was a very abusive, angry man.  He raped Anne and then had her head cut off.  Gavin worked hard to suggest that because of Henry's syphilis ( a condition that has only been speculated about and not proven) that Henry was not himself and therefore entitled to Anne's forgiveness. It was very much implied that Anne could not move on if she didn't find a way to forgive Henry.  Even in fiction, perpetuating the idea that an abuser is deserving of forgiveness from their victim is harmful.

As much as Gavin sought to explore the inner feelings of Anne, She also spent a lot of time justifying Henry's actions.  Yes, syphilis can attack the brain but does that justify executing Anne? What about Catherine Howard? Even if I were to simply accept syphilis as a justification, it does not explain why in a previous life, Henry tricked Anne into sleeping with him by suggesting he wouldn't marry her unless his penis fit inside her.  Anne, who was raised to believe that Henry would be her husband had to submit to the size check.  How is that not abusive? 

Just when I thought that I couldn't be more upset, I learned that Henry's punishment was to reborn as a slave and brave the Atlantic Crossing. In the process of that life, Henry would be sold away from two of his wives and in successive lives have difficulty keeping a spouse. As a slave, Henry would also be executed for a rape he didn't commit.  It seems to me that Gavin wants to have her cake and eat it too. Either what Henry did was justifiable because of his syphilis and therefore is deserving of forgiveness, or it's a horrible abuse of trust and power and deserves to be punished.  There are a lot of grays in life but this situation really isn't one of them. 

Gavin also played a lot with relativism operating under the guise of universal oppression. Look, I don't want to get into a game of oppression Olympics but let's not pretend that all bad acts are equal or even encompass the same scope. Yes, I can agree that humanity is capable of being extremely vicious and persecuting those who are deemed different and or inferior but that doesn't make it equal across the globe for each group of people.  It's like saying that because the Irish had to deal with indentured servitude that they had it as bad as slaves. 

To be honest, I'm really conflicted about this book.  It admittedly drew me in because I'm a history buff but it explored some unexpected themes.  I found myself interested in the idea that seeking to be morally superior to others is damaging to the soul.  In one life, Anne paid a price for using religion as a weapon which lead to the death of a villager and consequently when she was reborn as Anne Boleyn, she was far more religiously tolerant. I love the idea that it is not the material wealth we acquire or are born into that defines us, but our level of humility and willingness to act to benefit another. Some of these concepts I recognise as specifically Christian, especially with the heavy emphasis on the reward for submission occurring after death. 

Unsurprisingly, with Anne as a protagonist the female representation is good and strong. The women come from all walks of life and all have various strengths. I particularly like Gavin taking out the time to call out slut shaming of prostitutes even if Anne's slut shaming of Jane Seymour went unremarked upon.  I really loved that no matter where Anne appeared, she defied convention to her gender and was only willing to bend so far.  Gavin did infuse a lot of ideas about motherhood and how women should feel about their children which came across as gender essentialist to me. Even with all of the negatives, I really wanted to see where Anne's journey would take her and each twist and turn interested me.

I think that it's pretty clear that I'm extremely ambivalent about Thread: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn. There was so much to celebrate and yet so much of it was toxic.  I really couldn't predict what I would find on the next page, even though I'm quite familiar with the relationship between Anne and Henry Tudor. I alternated between devouring the story hungrily to just wanting to cleanse myself because of the forgiveness narrative. Thread: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn is clearly not light summer fluff but yet its entertainment value cannot be denied. I suppose the best way to describe Thread: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn is contradictory. In the areas were Gavin excelled the story was beautiful, artistic and fascinating and the areas in which she failed were disappointing and at times enraging.  Don't pick up Thread: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn unless you have time to think about the inclinations because I guarantee you that it will stay with you for awhile.