Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Spotlight & Review: The Merest Loss by Steven Neil

The Merest Loss by Steven Neil

A story of love and political intrigue, set against the backdrop of the English
hunting shires and the streets of Victorian London and post-revolutionary Paris.

When Harriet Howard becomes Louis Napoleon’s mistress and financial backer and appears at his side in Paris in 1848, it is as if she has emerged from nowhere. How did the English daughter of a Norfolk boot-maker meet the future Emperor? Who is the mysterious Nicholas Sly and what is his hold over Harriet?

Can Harriet meet her obligations and return to her former life and the man she left behind? What is her involvement with British Government secret services? Can Harriet’s friend, jockey Tom Olliver, help her son Martin solve his own mystery: the identity of his father?

The central character is Harriet Howard and the action takes place between 1836 and 1873. The plot centres on Harriet’s relationships with Louis Napoleon and famous Grand National winning jockey, Jem Mason. The backdrop to the action includes significant characters from the age, including Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria and the Duke of Grafton, as well as Emperor Napoleon III. The worlds of horse racing, hunting and government provide the scope for rural settings to contrast with the city scenes of London and Paris and for racing skulduggery to vie with political chicanery.

The Merest Loss is historical fiction with a twist. It’s pacy and exciting with captivating characters and a distinctive narrative voice

The Merest Loss is a fascinating fictional portrayal of several equally captivating characters who lived in Victorian times. The focus is on Elizabeth 'Eliza' Ann Harryet, a headstrong young girl from Norfolk and how she became known as the actress Harriet Howard, mistress to Louis Napoleon and later Comtesse de Beauregard.

I enjoyed the contrast between Harriet Howard's life and Jem Mason's racing world. I respect how the author wove their lives together to create an enthralling narrative and I quickly became absorbed as their stories unfolded. There's an overwhelming feeling these two people are destined to be together, but the reality was something very different. The love they had for each other was constant, but circumstances and outside interference played a huge part in keeping them apart.

Steven Neil's interpretation of the lives and events of the protagonists and secondary characters are impeccable and palpable. The covert actions of the British Government at the time and how they manipulated citizens to carry out their work by blackmail is shocking. It is this which throws Harriet's character under the spotlight. As an actress with ambitions, she is the darling of London Theatre-land, strong, ambitious and stubborn. Yet, the plans the British establishment had placed her in a vulnerable position, one where she acts only to keep those closest to her safe; manipulated to act as directed resulting in a heartfelt sacrifice. Somehow, though, she has an inbuilt resilience to retaliate and I particularly enjoyed the scene where she demanded an audience with Queen Victoria...which much to her satisfaction was granted.

Despite the narrative jumping back and forth between Harriet's secretive life and Jem's racing background, the writing flows effortlessly keeping me engaged within the narrative which was unputdownable.

Clearly, my favourite novels in 2018 have been fictional adaptations of historical figures and The Merest Loss is joining them on my top reads for the year.

***review copy received courtesy of the publisher Matador***

Author Bio Steven Neil has a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics, a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the Open University and an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University. In his working life he has been a bookmaker’s clerk, management tutor, management consultant, bloodstock agent and racehorse breeder. He is married and lives in rural Northamptonshire.

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