The Crimson Ribbon, by Katherine Clements

Headline Review
First publication date: March 27th 2014
Pages: 352 
ISBN: 9781472204196


England 1646. The Civil War is raging and society turned upside down. 

What should be a rare moment of blessing for the town of Ely takes a brutal turn and Ruth Flowers is left with little choice but to flee the household of Oliver Cromwell, the only home she has ever known. On the road to London, Ruth sparks an uneasy alliance with a deserting soldier, the battle-scarred and troubled Joseph. But when she reaches the city, it’s in the Poole household that she finds refuge. 

Lizzie Poole, beautiful and charismatic, enthrals the vulnerable Ruth, who binds herself inextricably to Lizzie’s world. But in these troubled times, Ruth is haunted by fears of her past catching up with her. And as Lizzie’s radical ideas escalate, Ruth finds herself carried to the heart of the country’s conflict, to the trial of a king.

Based on the real figure of the extraordinary Elizabeth Poole, The Crimson Ribbon conjures a mesmerising story of two women’s obsession, superstition and hope.


I received a copy of this book through NetGalley for an honest review.

The Crimson Ribbon is set during the English Civil War, a time when Parliamentarians and Royalists fought over control of the country, a time when the threat of witches haunted the people's minds. Indeed, this book begins with the hanging of a supposed witch, Ruth's mother. Ruth herself narrowly avoids the noose by fleeing to her master's home. Their crime? Helping a woman birth a deformed stillborn, clear proof of consorting with the devil.

Even in Cromwell's home, she is not safe. Her only escape is to find anonymity in the streets of London. But no matter how much one runs away, the past never lets go, and new problems find home next to the old ones. One takes shape in Joseph, a deserter who dreams of fighting the Royalists with words. Another is Elizabeth, the zealous daughter of the man who gave Ruth a roof to live under. One wants Ruth to embrace politics. Another religion. And all the while, England shouts for the blood of witches, of women like Ruth. The dream of a peaceful life is naught but that.

First of all, let me say that I do not know how historically accurate this book is and whether the portrayals of historical characters are correct. Nonetheless, it was quite easy to step into the England of old, into the London experienced by Ruth. Language, description, and the actions themselves created the atmosphere of an Europe aflame by superstition and a need for change.

The setting, however, does not work merely as a backdrop for the action, even if it feels like that sometimes as the book's main story has to do with Ruth's personal life. Indeed, the setting helps drive it together with the characters themselves, all of whom with deeply flawed personalities. Nobody in this novel is exactly who they seem to be. There's always another story, another version of the tale, another secret. What's more, there is clear character and relationship development. Lizzie, in particular, appears to go from one extreme to the other in the space of a few hundred pages. 

And yet, there's something off with them. Albeit going through realistic transformations, Lizzie does so in jumps, which made it hard for me to follow and empathise with her development. And then there's Joseph, whose relationship and motives to cling to Ruth are lost to me. There is, once again, not a proper follow-through. 

Not that any of this deterred me from enjoying the book. Quite on the contrary. The writing and plot (especially the gritty beginning) pulled me into the story with incredible ease, making it hard to put the book down. It helped that not only did the story flow effortlessly but the elements included were of varied nature (such as sexuality, religion, war, superstition, and propaganda) and woven beautifully into the plot. Though I admit I would have loved to see a little more of some of them. 

This is Katherine Clements's debut novel and I cannot wait to read her next ones.

The book in a quote

"I long for the impossible. I suppose, in time, this will pass, as all things must."