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The Great Level ‘I am an engineer and a measured man of the world I prefer to weigh everything in the balance to calculate and to plan Yet my own heart is going faster than I can now count’ In 1649 Jan Brunt a Dutchman arrives in England to work on draining and developing the Great Level an expanse of marsh in the heart of the fen country It is here he meets Eliza whose love overturns his ordered vision and whose act of resistance forces him to see the world differently Jan flees to the New World where the spirit of avarice is raging and his skills as an engineer are prized Then one spring morning a boy delivers a note that prompts him to remember the Fens and confront all that was lost there The Great Level is a dramatic and elemental story about two people whose differences draw them together then drive them apart Jan and Eliza’s journeys like the century they inhabit are filled with conflict hard graft and adventure – and see them searching for their own piece of solid ground

10 thoughts on “The Great Level

  1. Beata Beata says:

    Ever since I read the review in The Guardian I have wanted to read this book the story set in the mid of the 17th century of Jan Brunt a Dutch engineer who comes to East Anglia to drain the marshes is told in a most beautiful prose Jan is the narrator and describes his undertaking with love as for him shaping the land is something than just making it available for agricultural purposes although fields which are ploughed and give fruit are part of his vision His engineering efforts are not centred on money although he is hired by a group of entrepreneurs who see profit in these drained land Jan combines his skills and artistry And the Fens enchant him so does the local woman whom he meets and begins to love Jan finds his place on earth in New Amsterdam which becomes New York and where he leads modest solitary life I liked Eliza who though she begins as a slave on tobacco fields is intelligent and makes her way in the New World This is a marvellous marvellous historical novel I literally was unable to put this novel down and it'll stay with me for a long time what else could a reader ask for?

  2. Will Byrnes Will Byrnes says:

    That is what I believed that time nibbles away at the future and in that moment puts the present behind its back The past retreats as each present moment joins it on and on Yet that is far too simple Inside us time sways backwards and forwards from now to then here to there and nothing of it is lost or goes away but it all hangs everywhere translucent in the air Some men turn away and walk on saying that the past contains only their former selves and ghosts of people and deeds Others like myself live every day with it One minute I am in Nieuw Amsterdam the next pulled on a string into the other time that comes with me so that here on the Heere Gracht or as I walk across the marketplace you and I talk Looking back is a game for fools and not one that I like to play It is 1664 Jan Brunt a reclusive Dutch bachelor and engineer lives in what will soon become New York When he receives a letter announcing the arrival of an old friend he looks back to the greatest professional and personal challenge of his life the first his work as an engineer on one of the greatest European development projects of the pre industrial age The Great Level a draining of five hundred suare miles of wetland in southeastern England and transformation of it into arable farmland The second the relationship he forms with a local woman while working on that vast endeavor the love of his life His story flips back and forth between these two periodsStella Tillyard image from BBC The Great Level is an historical novel of a time during an ongoing English Civil War when there was much turmoil and much change happening in the world It offers powerful portraits of significant places of the era London of the interregnum for example with surreptitious street vendors peddling images of a decapitated King Charles and a very visible military presence of the sort one might expect in an occupied country Another picture of what is now East Anglia shows its idyllic appeal as a natural place in which the residents fight no wars against the natural order that provides them their livelihoods and then later offers a dark view of the modernization the denaturing of the place with the use of hordes of slave laborers prisoners of war from England’s ongoing battles We get a look at 1664 New York well Niew Amsterdam Manatus Eylandt as the Dutch development of it grows northward when Wall Street was still a wall and the swampy edges of the island as well as many wet inland spots beckoned the real estate developers of the time and provided ample employment for an experienced Dutch engineer We witness its handover to the English who rename it for a crown favorite And we get a look at the Virginia of the time heavy with indentured labor not yet so heavy with slaves It appears that in the latter 17th century every place is in need of draining and conversion of wet land at the edges of solid land is de rigeur for the advancement of certain sorts of civilization regardless of how that land provided for the residents who are regarded as primitives whether they are English fenlanders or Native Americans Colonialism both at home and abroad reuires denigration of the displaced residents The fens image from The GuardianEliza is one such During his early paddling through the vast area to be redesigned in The Great Level Jan comes across a group of local women bathing One disrobes as he draws near unaware Virginal Janny is shocked So I see her as I have never seen a woman her whole nakedness half in my plain sight half reflected in the water And in the same instant or so it feels she lifts her head and sees me there Her furious eyes strip me of everything and make me as naked as herself Well not uite Mortified Janny is smitten at the first instant of seeing his personal siren When I look up I see the mere the water and the sky all unchanged But I know that everything is altered and translated I spin the coracle work abandoned and paddle back to Ely heavy with whatever is inside me Guy never had a chance Of course he is bewitched in the way many a young man can be I was young once I know From that day on I live a different life Something has happened to mestraight away I accept and ingest it The woman I saw who saw me has taken up residence inside me They begin to encounter each other on the water then closer then closer then well you know they become an item Each has something to teach the other she the ways of the fenfolk who make use of the bounty of their watery land Like Professor Doolittle although not to win a bet he teaches her to read write very much at her reuest He is making her over as his company is making over the land But she is no passive recipient He teaches her also how to measure in essence how to be an engineer One might see Eliza not only as a siren figure but as a personification of the land itself From that day the sun shines on everything in the world It feels to me as if I have a new knowledge and that the change that came over me when you first fixed me with your glance was the beginning of it This knowledge is not from a person or a book It is a knowledge of what is neither sacred nor profane but just the world itself Already open to such vision he notes and of the nature of the place as he spends time with Eliza Stand still in a full silence and it’s loud with noises A heron takes flight; he creaks like a ship in sail Ducks scuffle in the reeds I hear the beat of wings the movement of creatures in the grass water rippling and the wind that accompanies me everywhere sighing and roaring Nature that seems so uiet pours out its songs Even in the darkness there is a velvet purr of sound of moles underground and field mice above One of the powerful elements of the novel is the portrayal of Eliza as a powerful woman not only surviving in the perilous world of men but using the knowledge she gains to survive the challenges she faces on two continents and to secure what she wants from the universe and maybe take a shot or two at what she perceives as dark forces One of the lesser elements of the book is the static nature of Jan He is a bit stiff personally while possessing a naturalist’s feel for the untrammeled world He has some notions of the sort of life he would like to build for himself but seems unable to adapt to changes in his circumstances remaining withdrawn and solitary I hoped for development of Jan’s character Both Jan and Eliza are mostly about business but Eliza seems much the livelier character of the two Jan goes through little character development only from a young engineer to an experienced and confident one He remains stand offish and sinks into the swamp of his unwillingness to act The fens image from The GuardianThey share an appreciation for the beauty of the land whether the fenlands of the Great Level or the new exciting lands of the New World Those are lyrical passagesThis is a novel of man in and versus nature of colonialism at home and abroad of both people and landscapes being subdued by political and monetary forces Land as a source of power and freedom is central Consideration is given to how one perceives time Jan holding to a notion that time is a flexible thing that one can inhabit multiple times simultaneously This is contrasted with a New World perspective that disdains any sort of rearward vision and focuses on material success While Jan’s story makes up the bulk of the book as he addresses his story to Eliza she gets a chance to narrate towards the back of the book I would have preferred to have seen their perspectives alternated instead of being presented so separately and would have liked learning much about Eliza’s life before her home turf was so assaulted A greater balance between their two tales would have been most welcome There are elements of excitement and danger as the prisoners forced to work on the Great Level are less than willing but are held in check by a dark sort who would look perfectly lovely in an SS uniform The locals as well are not ecstatic about seeing their entire way of life bulldozed out of existence and do not all endure it peacefully Eliza’s experience is rich with peril and we want her to find a way to survive Bottom line is that The Great Level is a fascinating look at several places at a time in history most of us do not think about or see much in our diverse readings and entertainments It is a worthwhile read for that alone It offers a thoughtful look at the appeal of both nature untrammeled and the satisfying power of taming landscape counterflows within individuals as well as in the larger context The love story is wonderful for a time But Jan seemed despite his lyrical feelings for nature just too withheld You can rub two sticks together but there will not always be a spark There was one here for a while but after the initial heat the ember never graduated to flame That said there is much to like here And it probably won’t drain all your resources to check it out In the summer I may paddle on for days I catch fish and travel as the wildmen do until I reach the far end of the island where it breaks into numerous inlets and beaches Then I walk down to the open ocean and feel myself to be not a man but a part of nature as is a star or a dolphin that leaps for joy out in the bay Far away round our earth lies the old world while here I stand on the new Waves rush up to my feet and then pull back marbled with sand and foam Review posted – October 11 2019Publication dates UK – July 5 2018 by Chato Windus USA – September 17 2019 – as Call Upon the Water by Atria BooksEXTRA STUFFLinks to the author’s personal Twitter and GR pagesHer personal site is not particularly currentTillyard is a historian best known for her bio of the Lennox Sisters The Aristocrats which was made into a very successful mini series in 1999 In addition to her historical works Tillyard published her first novel Tides of War in 2011 Items of Interest STREET PLAN OF NEW AMSTERDAM AND COLONIAL NEW YORK from the NYC Landmarks Preservation commission The Guardian ‘Weirder than any other landscape’ a wild walk in the Fens by Patrick Barkham Evening News Norwich raised historian to release new book by Rosanna ElliottThe author said “Growing up in Norwich I was certainly aware of the fens and I remember passing Ely often on the way to visit my grandparents in Cambridge The great skies of East Anglia have always been inside me and I still love flat landscapes and marshes“I am sure that inspired my choice of the fens when I thought about climate change flooding and the changing use and exploitation of land and people” “There are little details in the book that come from my family history in Norwich” said Tillyard “Jan my hero buys boots from Norwich where there are fine leather workers who have begun to settle there fleeing from persecution in France “This is what my own Huguenot ancestors did They were leather workers who by the 18th century had set up in Elm Hill in Norwich The business eventually became Norvic Shoes with a large factory in St George’s Plain

  3. Ingrid Ingrid says:

    Beautifully written Historical facts mixed with a personal story which I enjoyed very much The main characters are not worked out in depth The author observes them throughout their lives and relates the observations to the reader It's a fairytale style of writing but well done I felt I was there

  4. Gumble& Gumble& says:

    Now this should have been a book I enjoyedIt has chapters set in my place of birth Kings Lynn and many others set at the very foundation of the City I visit monthly New York – as it transitions from New Amsterdam Golden HillThe Kings Lynn and Ely part is around the draining of the Fens – a landscape which has inspired great writing such as Fen by Daisy Johnson Waterland by Graham Swift and Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake The New York part similar in many ways to the setting of Francis Spufford’s exuberant debut novel Further the book is by a respected historian and set in one of the most fascinating periods of English and early Colonial history – the revolution and restoration Its main narrator is an engineer – just like the wonderful Dublin Literary and Goldsmith winning Solar Bones by Mike McCormackReturning to this book The main character and main first party narrator of the book is a Dutchman Jan Brunt – who with his engineering knowledge developed in the dams and polders of Holland accepts a position in 1649 as one of the lead engineers on the project to drain the marshes in the Fens around Ely Each part of the book starts with a section set in Nieuw Amsterdam where a largely solitary and withdrawn Jan still acting as an advisor on water drainage is confronted with a note promising a visit from someone he has not seen for many years – which in turn causes him to reflect on the events of the Great LevelThe Great Level parts are full of details of the drainage – perhaps the most interesting element is the heavy use of forced labour firstly Irish and later Covenanter prisoners of war of Cromwell Sadly though the actual engineering and drainage elements themselves do not come to life – they are neither entertaining or informative and I felt I would have been much better served by a non fictional treatment of the Great Level Another element is the almost pagan nature of the marsh dwellers – captured in Eliza a fey almost ghost like woman who visits him and with whom he forms an intense relationship however I found this part rather strained credibilityThe sections in the American colonies are stronger – and particularly a whole part which switches to the first party voice of Eliza – an Eliza who is a far interesting and compelling character and whose hints of her reappearance bring into life the depths of Jan’s character Her transformation from the character of the first part is best described as like the Doolittle of Pygmalion presumably deliberately given her first name but was weakened for me by her somewhat fantasy like presence in the Great Level sectionsSo certainly an interesting book but one which felt short of the Great Level of my expectations – the sections set in the UK draining my enthusiasm as efficiently as Jan does the Fens

  5. Dan Dan says:

    Stella Tillyard’s The Great Level is an absolute stunner It’s everything that I want in an historical novel a completely immersive reading experience feeling submerged in a previously unknown historical epoch and previously unknown historical locales After Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones whoever would have thought that another novel about a civil engineer could be so fully absorbing especially one located in seventeenth century England and Manhattan Tillyard recounts the struggles of Dutch civil engineers supported by wealthy gentry prisoners and soldiers struggle to reclaim arable land from the fenlands surrounding the Isle of Ely Tillyard invents fully believable characters—and especially Jan Brunt and Eliza—who involve us in their livesJan's voice is especially convincing and powerful Here he speaks of his work But my pleasure when I talk of my work has a darkening edge It has come to me that for one world to be made another must die Now as my vision begins to come into being I am filled with sadness as well as joy I have seen that this unimproved world has its own way of being which will will be lost It has even its own splendor And here Jan speaks of memory It is said that the contrary of to forget is to remember yet that axiom sounds now like something learned at school a verse recited or a catechism just a story in language The contrary of to forget I see now is to be a part of to live with and to share I watch the ocean disappear behind me and know that a life without a past is a thin one a life starved of voices and nourishment I will not forget; I will let memory live The Great Level for me is also a testament to the power of browsing in an excellent bookstore Almost all of what I read now is by less than two handfuls of favorite novelists—Brookner Green Modiano Roth Rhys Robinson—or from recommendations gleaned from book reviews literary friends or prize lists But I discovered The Great Level on a table with recently published fiction in Toppings and Company with a lovely dustjacket and an inviting “signed first edition” ribbon no sticker thank you very much One small uibble and one which I hope Chatto Windus addresses in a future edition The Great Level is a novel that demands illustrative endpapers and hand drawn maps of both the Great Level and Manatus Eylandt

  6. Jo Jo says:

    Jan Brunt is a Dutchman who moves from the Netherlands to England to work on the drainage of the Fens around Ely Years later he's living in New Amsterdam and thinking back to his time in England in the 164os50s when the country was still in tumultuous times following the civil war I found this a little wordy at times and the story often moved slowly but it was beautifully written and an interesting story My only uibble is that the text was rather small and it felt a bit of a strain to read it

  7. Kinga Kinga says:

    Jan Brunt arrives in Norfolk to drain The Fens and increase the amount of arable land funded by Norfolk's famous son Oliver Cromwell In Norfolk he meets and starts a relationship with Eliza who later tells her story and becomes a three dimensional character on a page The story eventually moves to New Amsterdam where we find Jan a bit of a recluse still earning his way as an engineer I was fascinated by the story of draining The Fens as Norfolk is just north of Suffolk where I live The engineering and work involved in bending nature to human endeavour has always fascinated me and I wanted to find out about how you stop water from spreading in a low lying piece of land Ideally I would have loved a couple of maps one of Norfolk and one of New Amsterdam showing the difference between the modern day maps we are familiar with Those short comings aside this was a great book

  8. Charlotte Aitken Charlotte Aitken says:

    There are two problems with this book; one and its pace and two the ending Mostly told from the point of view of the engineer Jan Brunt the story creeps along at a frustrating pace until the second voice of Eliza is introduced She is brave intelligent and curious and ultimately she turns a punishment into an opportunityI can't help but feel that if Eliza's point of view and indeed her story was introduced a little earlier that this story would have been rounded and engaging For too long she is just a cardboard cut out character we know too little of her history and her motivations The people of the fens must have been worried about the draining of the fans and fearful for their futures this fact is made much of at the beginning of the book but then is never really fully examined I feel this is a great shame and could have been explored and given voice to by Eliza

  9. Zoe Radley Zoe Radley says:

    Wow she evokes so much life and vivid details of the fens Netherlands as well as the new land America in the early part of the 17th century Wow what a novel haunting and breathtaking and just rich in detail I wanted to savour every page This is one book I wanted to finish and yet did not want it to end I might be tempted to buy it

  10. Colin Colin says:

    It's surprising that the draining of the English Fens in the mid seventeenth century hasn't inspired novelists It's an event with plenty of material a country still reeling from a brutal civil war and regicide the culture clashes between the locals and the Dutch engineers brought over by the King to get the job done and between old established ways of life and the emerging modern world between religion and science and so on Stella Tillyard makes the most of this rich seam of history in The Great Level which follows the lives of two characters Jan Brunt a Dutch surveyor and engineer and Eliza a local fen woman whose paths cross only briefly but whose stories remain interlinked over many years In a story that ranges back and forth across time and place taking in Amsterdam Ely King's Lynn New Amsterdam New York and a Virginia Plantation this is highly effective storytelling set against a fascinating period of British history It has an extra resonance for me as I was born and brought up not far from the Fens and now live on the edge of the Humberhead Levels another fenland area drained by Vermuyden and his Dutch engineers shortly before he embarked on his project to reclaim the Great Level and which bred similar local resentment and resistance

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