The House at Bishopsgate: Katie Hickman

★★★★

The Pindar Trilogy: Book III

I only realised that this novel was the third part of a trilogy after I had finished it, which goes to show that it reads perfectly well as a standalone book. In fact, I’m delighted to discover this because The House at Bishopsgate has left me itching to know more about the characters’ exotic histories. This is the concluding part of a story begun in The Aviary Gate and continued in The Pindar Diamond, neither of which I’ve yet read, but watch this space, as they might make an appearance soon. Hickman’s tale of intrigue, secrets, lost love and scheming ambition makes for an addictive brew.

In this book, we meet Paul and Celia Pindar in Aleppo in 1611, on the eve of returning to their native London after several years spent in the Middle East. Paul, a successful merchant, is eager to see the sumptuous mansion he’s had built on Bishopgate to welcome his wife home. But he also realises that London will be strange to her; for Celia has only recently been freed from the sultan’s harem in Constantinople. There is much in the Pindars’ past that would cause scandal in London, if it were to come out; and more in their present that would fascinate. For Paul Pindar returns not only with a dazzling fortune, but also a wife who knows all the subtle secrets of the Ottoman harem and, perhaps most captivating of all, a magnificent diamond, the Sultan’s Blue.

As it turns out, the return is disorientating for both Pindars. Paul’s mansion, which was once set among the trees and meadows of Bishopsgate, is now cluttered about with new building. After the old Queen’s death, with the impetus of a new reign, London is fizzing with energy again: the Exchange buzzes with rumours and gossip and Pindar finds himself a famous man – but perhaps not for the reasons he’d anticipated. Celia is, predictably, at a loss in the face of her vast new home and the strange manners of the English, which she has all but forgotten. Fortunately help is at hand in the shape of Lady Sydenham, the widow of an Antwerp merchant who has been escorted by the Pindars back from the continent. At first Celia is grateful for this woman’s practicality and competence. Frances Sydenham seems to know how to do everything. But as time passes, Celia begins to grow uneasy. Frances shows no sign of leaving them and moving on to her own family; on the contrary, she seems to be gathering all the reins of the household into her hands.

Something is not quite right, but Celia can’t quite articulate her discomfort. If only her old friend Annetta were here! But Annetta is far off, in a Venetian convent, waiting to be released to come and join them. Only Annetta understands Celia, having been her confidante within the walls of the Ottoman harem. And Celia knows that she isn’t the only one who longs for a sympathetic ear. Her husband Paul hopes to find his childhood companion John Carew, from whom he parted angrily in Venice. Both of them yearn after absent friends, while their own relationship grows ever more strained. And all around them, and over them, the shadow of Frances Sydenham grows…

This was a thoroughly enjoyable mixture of exotic historical fiction and thriller, which will be just right for those who enjoyed The Miniaturist. My chief concern, when reading it, was that Hickman was hinting at all this wonderful backstory without making the most of it, but of course now I realise that she already has written more fully about all of that (The Aviary Gate sounds a bit like The Abduction from the Seraglio). I thought Hickman’s characterisation and descriptive powers were very fine. She evokes the exotic splendour of a rich merchant’s house in the 17th century: the Turkey carpets, jewels, cameos and curiosities from every corner of the world; yet her exquisitely realised settings are inhabited by real people, troubled, complex and full of half-glimpsed histories. This is a clever tale of intertwining lives, each driven by desire – whether that’s for someone or something – and bristling with secrets. Wonderful stuff.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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