Margaret Sweatman’s The Players is a novel that possesses the power to draw the reader into the space of the page. Her prose is confident and precise enough that it forces the reader to forget the world beyond the margins. She transports us to 17th century England during the Age of Reason and discovery. We follow the story of a group of Englishmen and two French explorers who set sail to Canada’s wilderness. That being said, it is not simply an historical adventure novel, but one that is witty, dark, erotic and most definitely entertaining.
One of the strongest aspects of the novel is its characters. Sweatman assembles a cast of characters that seem vaguely recognizable, as though you have come across them once before, yet at the same time they seem foreign enough that you still desire the rest of their story. Lilly, the female protagonist, is a witty and alluring young girl who is first introduced to us as an actor and the King’s mistress. Lilly is also a troubled character. She is frequently haunted by the death of her mother, and is always in some sort of struggle whether it is with herself or others. She must constantly be on guard against the violence of men. On more than one occasion Lilly is threatened with rape by the lowly and the powerful. Bartholomew is another memorable character. He is a cynic, a poet and a playwright; he lives with a monkey, hardly sleeps and is nearly always drunk. He taught Lilly to act and recite and of course, like many men, has fallen in love with her.
The characters seem to take centre stage for most of the story, but the novel is definitely rich with theme. One of the most pervasive themes is otherness. Of Bartholomew, the narrator says, “He felt unreal. He felt separate” and of the King, “Charles was most comfortable with exiles” and of course we have Lilly’s struggle against men, and two French explorers traveling with Englishmen. This otherness extends itself beyond the characters. For example, the tension that surrounds the differences among Christian religions, between life on sea and on land, the cultural difference between the natives and European explorers, and of course the old world and the new. Sweatman’s striking and careful prose does an excellent job to bring out, on both the largest and the most minute scale, the sense of anxiety that permeates this transitioning world. (Eric Schmaltz)
by Margaret Sweatman, $22.95, 329 pgs. Gooselane Editions, Suite 330, 500 Beaverbrook Court, Fredericton, NB, E3B 5X8