August Bookclub Review: The Crimson Ribbon

Saturday 30 August 2014 by

The Crimson Ribbon, Katherine Clements, Headline, BookThe Crimson Ribbon by Katherine Clements

Published by Headline

May Day. 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 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 Elizabeth Poole, The Crimson Ribbon conjures a mesmerising story of two women’s obsessions, superstition and hope.


I started reading The Crimson Ribbon immediately after finishing The Paying Guests (more on that later), and I was struck by the parallels between them. Both feature two women, one in a position of power and one without, thrown together in a household, who fall in love. And both feature one woman far more manipulative than the other – which was remarkable in the way they are portrayed. They are both brilliant reads, but there is something eerily familiar when you read them back to back, like a sense of déjà vu, or as if you’ve lived that life before…

I know very little of this period of British history – I know of the civil war, the witch trials, Oliver Cromwell, and the Puritanical purging that happened that resulted in the beheading of a king. But any more detail than that, and I’m clueless. So the name Elizabeth Poole actually meant nothing to me – something that meant I could approach this tale without any preconceptions of a character.

Written in the first person present-tense, Ruth tells the story of her sudden flight from Ely after her mother is killed by a lynch mob, to the Poole household in London, and how, upon falling in love with Elizabeth, she finds herself caught up in trials and intrigues of politics far beyond her imagination.

Ruth is a brilliant protagonist – earthy and honest, with a tremendous naivety to her that you can’t help but fall for. She tells the story as she sees it, meaning you are left with a lot of questions and presumptions, but you don’t ever feel like you’re being deceived – which is an achievement when it comes to first person narratives.

Elizabeth, however, is horrid. I know you’re meant to like her initially, but everything about her felt wrong. She is never entirely kind to Ruth, manipulating her even when they are in danger. Her fanaticism comes across as provocative and staged. Not knowing anything about her in real life, I have decided that I don’t like her – something that perhaps feeds in to her fate. You instantly feel faithful to Ruth, and Lizzie is the greatest threat, more so because Ruth is so naïve to it.

Throughout the novel, you feel the tension tightening; the momentary reprieves are all the worse for knowing what must come, and Clements does remarkably well to hide the twists right to the last moment – although there are some fates already decided, there are the likes of Joseph that you can’t fathom. It is the characters that carry the plot, but I have to admit that I felt the setting was a bit flimsy. I never felt anchored in London and the brief spells elsewhere felt ethereal and unreal, as they are to Ruth. It’s like the characters are walking around in a fog, and the scenes that are clearly taken from historical fact (the king’s beheading for example) are even less substantial, as if they are lifted from accounts and left un-embellished.

I adored Ruth, and to an extent, Joseph. Some of the other characters were left unexplored and therefore I feel ambiguous about them, but Lizzie felt like that unpleasant breed of best friend who is really your enemy. It was Lizzie that felt like the strongest thread throughout by the end of it. Ruth is grounded and real, but Lizzie feels clearer and more vividly imagined. The prize for Best Worst Protagonist has to go to Clements, hands down! I relished in my displeasure with her, and yet felt for Ruth as she is emotionally tortured by Lizzie. Her fate may have been decided, but the story getting there was brilliant.

Clements’ The Crimson Ribbon feels like a first novel that has cautiously tested the waters for an author that has so much more to give. I will be waiting eagerly for her next.

What did you think of The Crimson Ribbon?

September’s House of Blog Bookclub is the hugely anticipated Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel! Tweet your thoughts through the hashtag #HoBBookclub on Twitter or write on the wall on the House of Blog Facebook page.

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