Some of you will have read author Annabel Frazer‘s previous guest reviews on this blog: she has shared her thoughts on Stormy Petrel, and, along with her 13-year-old daughter Olivia, The Ivy Tree. For Mary Stewart Day, Annabel re-read My Brother Michael, despite this not being one of her favourite Mary Stewart novels, and I have persuaded her to share her review here. Thanks, Annabel!

I reread My Brother Michael for Mary Stewart Day, simply because it was one of the few of her books I hadn’t read for ages. The reason for this is that it has never been one of my favourites, so reading it again was like meeting up after many years for a tentative coffee with an old acquaintance you have never been very fond of!

 I read this time it willing it to be less annoying than I remembered, in the same way that I sometimes try and force the ending to be different when I read A Farewell To Arms. Perhaps I had read the book too young the first time round, or had unreasonable expectations. Lots of other people seem to like it. But it’s no good. My difficulties with it are, in the words of Talking Heads, same as they ever were.

 My main problem is that the level of violence and sex (and indeed sexual violence) is far higher than you normally expect of Mary Stewart and far higher than many of us would want. I am as politely bored and disgusted by some scenes as the heroine Camilla is herself and none of it is essential to the plot. It could be skirted round as distantly as Gianetta edges round depictions of Heather McRae’s death and Hartley Corrigan’s infidelities in Wildfire At Midnight but instead, it’s bald and unpleasant and relentless.

 My second problem is the characters, who never grip me in the way that even the minor characters of books such as Wildfire, Moonspinners and This Rough Magic do. I can’t make out why this is. You’re either a good writer or you’re not, and Mary Stewart unquestionably is, so how is it ever possible for her to produce flat, one-dimensional characters, which is what I feel Camilla, Simon, Nigel and the rest of them are to me – while Hubert Hay, Marcia Maling, Julian Gale and others in other books leap joyfully from the page.

I save most of my ire for Camilla. I just don’t buy her ‘journey’. It seems improbable to me that in the 1950s, a girl would get engaged at nineteen and stay engaged for six years without marrying but instead spend that time ‘trailing around’ in the wake of her dominant fiancé. She’s clearly been living independently during that time, presumably earning a living by teaching. She is 25 now but sounds much older, with some of the experienced sadness of the heroines of The Ivy Tree and Wildfire (rather than the youthful, innocent confidence of Lucy Waring, Nicola Ferris and Perdita). In short, her back-story just doesn’t convince me.

 The fact that Philip was originally intended to be her older brother is really interesting and might well have made more sense in the context of the constant insistence on Camilla’s uncertainty and lack of confidence – in this version, she becomes a young girl from a sheltered family who has never really explored the world on her own before. I presume Philip was turned into a fiancé in order to paint an unflattering picture of both the man and his approach to relationships so that Simon Lester should contrast more strikingly, but I think it’s rather a pity.

 Simon himself also fails to come alive for me, both in my original reading and now, when I’ve read loads about the real British liaison officers who served in Greece during World War 2. The historical research seems well-founded, but Simon is just too polite, too urban, too relaxed, to carry the heavy themes of loyalty, love and revenge that his character has to bear. Both Richard Byron in Madam Will You Talk (MS’s first novel!) and Nicholas Drury in Wildfire At Midnight are much darker, more complex and thus more interesting characters than Simon – and it’s his story that’s supposed to be carrying the plot.

 I can’t help feeling that since this is an intensely significant personal quest for Simon, in real life he would be reluctant to be distracted by a girl, however attractive. Would the story have made more sense with Simon a ‘dark’ hero along Richard Byron/Nicholas Drury lines, gloomy and brooding and  reluctant to involve or acknowledge Camilla but forced to take account of her when chance draws her into the situation? Maybe.

 Of course, there are good things about My Brother Michael. The people, history and landscapes of Greece are, as always, depicted with loving care and attention. There are interesting debates woven into the plot about the nature of artistic genius and the human capacity for getting involved with other people’s troubles. The plot is tightly and carefully woven and has a beautiful secret at its heart. But to me, it will always somehow be found wanting compared to Mary Stewart’s best.

Sadly, My Brother Michael has not grown on Annabel over the years! I am much more fond of this novel, as you can read if you look at related posts Mary Stewart and the dreadful driving of Miss Camilla HavenMy Brother Michael, or More About My Brother Michael (WARNING: this last post contains spoilers).

What do you think of this novel? Am I the only one who has laughed out loud while reading it? I’d love to know who ranks it as one of their favourite Mary Stewarts and who dislikes it – I’d love to know your reasons why you love/hate it.