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Sylvia - Book Review

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by Chrystal Byrne (subscribe)
Freelance writer living on Brisbane's north side. Studied creative industries - currently studying library and information services.
Published April 10th 2013
Sylvia is a child of God. She's loves the animals, is a friend to all children, and is loved dearly by her mother. She's an only child; her mother being a good-sort of woman who was tricked into marrying her father – a lazy, abusive drunkard. When Sylvia's mother dies of illness, she is left to fend for herself against her father, who forces himself upon her night after drunken night. Knowing this, the townspeople turn against Sylvia Honeyeater, leaving her with only her faith and the birds, whom she calls to when she is out in the fields alone. But Sylvia is a child of God, and her future beckons.

After an unfortunate debacle in the market, where Sylvia is seen to blaze within a ray of sunshine singing the praises of God, three of the townswomen become convinced that Sylvia was, for that moment, the instrument of God. They become further convinced after viewing what Sylvia insists is but a birthmark, a small mark of the fish between her shoulder blades, upon her back. Sylvia, unconvinced that she has been touched by God after all that her father has inflicted upon her, refuses to speak to the town priest, infuriating the three townswomen in the process. They banish her from the town – but not before Sylvia's father dies during another of his abominable acts of abuse.

Sylvia leaves town with the clothes upon her back, a leather satchel, some food and a protection stave blessed with holy water, made for her by a local monk. She soon runs into Reinhardt, a ratcatcher/musician, who proposes that they travel together after hearing her sing. With Reinhardt's flute, and Sylvia's angelic voice, they're sure to be able to make a living. Sylvia agrees, and the pair travel to the city of Cologne to petition a couple of Jews into funding their business. It is within this city that 'miracles of God' continue to happen around Sylvia, eventually persuading her to enter a convent. From here, Sylvia becomes a major part of the events directly preceding the Children's Crusade, and becomes one of the spiritual leaders in the trek to recover the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.

Sylvia (2006) by Bryce Courtenay

Sylvia by Bryce Courtenay was first published on the 16th of November, 2006, by Viking Press. It is Courtenay's 16th novel (of 21), and the first to deal with a historical event of which so little is known, the Children's Crusade of 1212. Sylvia tells the story of a teenage girl, Sylvia Honeyeater, and her involvement in the events directly preceding, and during, the time of the Children's Crusade of 1212. The novel explores themes of religion, womanhood, abuse and childhood, and is one of many of Bryce Courtenay's Bildungsroman (coming-of-age) stories.

Bryce Courtenay (14.08.1933 – 22.11.2012) is one of Australia's best-selling authors; a South African novelist who held Australian citizenship. Arthur Bryce Courtenay was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but migrated with his future wife, Benita Solomon, to Sydney, Australia, in 1958. Courtenay was the Creative Director of McCann Erickson, J. Walter Thompson & George Patterson Advertising, had a career in advertising spanning 34 years and was responsible for the award-winning campaigns: Louie the Fly, the original Milkybar Kid and the Australian Labor Party's 1972 election campaign, It's Time. In September 2012, Courtenay announced that he was suffering from terminal gastric cancer and that his last book would be Jack of Diamonds. He died on the 22nd of November, 2012, at his Canberra home.

Bryce Courtenay
Bryce Courtenay

I enjoyed reading Sylvia; it is only the second Bryce Courtenay novel that I've read (the first being Power of One many years ago), but it has definitely warmed me to the idea of looking into his other works. Although it is a work of fiction, it opened my eyes to the possibilities surrounding the Children's Crusade – what could have happened, what might have happened that historians don't know about. I feel that some parts of the novel were a little slow going, but each chapter served to build the characters, setting and overall story of the disastrous Children's Crusade.

As a character, Sylvia Honeyeater is likeable, but I found I was more attached to Reinhardt the Ratcatcher/the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Sylvia was good, religious, intelligent and beautiful – but she doesn't really have any flaws that make her relatable. I liked her much more when she was being 'naughty' rather than 'good'. As a reader you are set up to like and sympathise with Sylvia over her childhood, and I enjoy and salute her strong will to learn in a time where women were uneducated, but everything with Sylvia kept coming back to religion which I think I resented.

The Children's Crusade - Gustave Padua (1832-1883) / Wikimedia Commons
The Children's Crusade - Gustave Doré

Reinhardt the Ratcatcher/the Pied Piper of Hamelin is a cheeky, mischievous, happy, flamboyant character. He is not entirely truthful or pious, but remains loyal to Sylvia throughout the novel. He even leaves Cologne, Germany, to live in France, but comes back to live out the rest of his life by Sylvia's side. He is quick thinking, street smart, and incredibly talented musically. I love that he is the music to Sylvia's voice, and that he has the foresight to band together with her when they first meet. Although not strictly religious, his faith and love for Sylvia sends him on the Children's Crusade, at her side.

Nicholas of Cologne annoyed me. Even before his experience with the mushrooms, his attitude and manner were not to my liking. My opinion of his character worsened throughout the novel. He is a self-indulgent, self-promoting, childish, jealous and overzealous leader, who shouldn't be a leader at all. The other characters in the novel come and go, but half of them are not very likeable either. It really is the storyline that pulls the reader, and for me, the loveable Reinhardt. Despite my dislike of certain characters, I really enjoyed Sylvia by Bryce Courtenay, and would recommend it.

Sylvia (2006) by Bryce Courtenay
My personal copy of Sylvia (2006) by Bryce Courtenay
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Cost: $24.95 for a paperback copy from QBD online.
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