Jan Brunt is a Dutch engineer hired to help plan the draining of the Great Level in East Anglia in 1649. Jan gets to know Eliza, whose family lives in the Fens, and who oppose the development because it impacts on their livelihood. Eventually, Jan leaves to live in New Amsterdam (now New York) determined to forget all about Eliza and his time in England. She has also moved away, and the two have not communicated for many years. Then one day, he gets a note of greeting from someone from those times, and he is confronted with his memories.
Glanceabook: “The first half of the book narrated by Jan moves slowly, but when the point of view moves to Eliza, there is a distinct change of pace and style. The description of the Fens where the first part takes place brings the reader into the setting, and this is a delight to read. Whilst Eliza’s story draws the reader into her thoughts and feelings, her motivations for her actions before she left the Fens are not resolved.”
The Guardian: Rousing and heroic though that story is, it’s hard to feel Eliza’s presence. And though the American sections are finely plotted, the real power of The Great Level is in the Fens. It is in the sudden desire Brunt finds there and the slow, seeping damp. It’s in the immersed, liquid imagination that falls on a memory of words written long ago in Holland with the invisible ink of lemon juice, held to the candle flame until the heat reveals them. It’s in the fear of the workers who throw down their spades when “strange and wonderful things” start to come up from the ground, and in Brunt’s rapt curiosity as he sifts the ash from a cremation urn and asks: “Who are you?” It’s in the questions that we have not yet answered about when to intervene with projects of cultivation and control, and when to let the water run where it will.
Historical Novel Society: “It is intelligent and gentle prose – Tillyard describes the beauties of the soon-to-be eradicated eastern wetlands with a poet’s eye. There has been a lot of research into both life in the fens and in the American colonies in the mid-17th century, but it is never obvious or unwieldy. A pleasure to read.”
Kirkus: (Reviewed as “Call Upon the Water”) “Historical fiction that deftly weaves engineering marvels, love, optimism, and tragedy against the backdrop of war and tensions in the mid-17th-century Old and New World… A dense, delightful read.
“To redeem the drowned land it is necessary for us to understand it; that is to say, to measure it.’
“Now everything will begin to change. The land will wake and emerge, as improvement demands.”
“No country can be mine while I am a woman and the property of men. I have been a daughter, a servant, a wife. I have not had possession of myself.
Author: Stella Tillyard