Past Imperfect

Justin Cartwright’s Novel ‘Lion Heart’ May Win Him the Audience He Deserves

Justin Cartwright’s ‘Lion Heart’ toggles back and forth between the present and the Crusades, probing the ties both filial and romantic that bind us all.

03.25.14 9:45 AM ET

In conversation with the novelist William Boyd some years ago, I queried him on the names of unheralded authors. He enthusiastically commended Justin Cartwright (who by that time had already written half a dozen novels). It took a few years but when The Song Before It Is Sung made it into my hands in 2007, I was impressed by that Cartwright novel about the friendship between English philosopher Isaiah Berlin and Nazi officer Adam von Trott, who was executed for his part in the “generals’ plot” against Hitler in 1944.

Having now published his 15th novel, Lion Heart, Cartwright is still little known in the United States. I am puzzled by this failure, as in his home country he is well regarded and regularly listed for literary prizes and included in the front ranks of contemporary novelists. John Sutherland, an eminent British literary personage, calls Cartwright’s novel Other People’s Money, “the best seminar in print on the supranational grand larceny that damn near did for us all in 2008.”

Personally, I have never understood the American fascination with the British Royals. Whether that interest extends to the sovereigns of antiquity may affect Lion Heart ‘s reception on this side of the Atlantic, since the Lion Heart of the title refers to King Richard I (1157-1199), also known as Coeur de Lion, Richard the Lion Heart.

Happily, the novel has a number of diverting subplots. Richard Cathar, late of Oxford University, is something of a loser, at least in matters of love. We first encounter him attending a performance of Richard III at London’s reconstructed Globe Theater with his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Emily (who idolizes Anna Karenina) and wishing Shakespeare had written a play about Richard I. Richie is not a man whose feet are firmly planted.

In addition, to a rocky love life, Richie has a troubled bond with Alaric, his deceased father—they didn’t speak for the last 10 years of Alaric’s life: “There is a small but distinct group of men that I recognize at a distance. My father was one of them. They have a kind of frayed-at-the-edges charm and slightly distracted cheerfulness, as though they are attuned to amusing private frequencies. Their hair is long, even if decimated by hereditary patterns of baldness, their clothes a little threadbare and ill matched, so that a Tibetan shari can be worn with an old pinstriped suit; or perhaps a thick pair of corduroys, of a type found only in a few streets near the traditional London clubs, will be paired confidently with a Jimi Hendrix T-shirt.”

Though an Oxford dropout, Richie’s dad loved Richard I and devoted his post university life to an unpublished (and uncompleted) biography, The True Story of Richard the Lionheart, in which he offered the unsubstantiated claim that Lion Heart and Robin Hood became bosom companions. Richie mocks his father: “My father had no evidence, but he trusted his intuition. People who take drugs often do. To them much is revealed through close leisurely self-examination. Serious scholars of the non-intuitive sort have hunted through the records: the first mentions of Robin Hood … appear over 50 years later.”

As this story continues, Richie finagles a grant from Oxford to do research in Jerusalem on crusader art and the final disposition of the True Cross—the last genuine relic of Calvary. But before his eastbound travels, he allows himself a brief fit of pique at his ex and her new lover, a creative writing professor who Richie views as a “beardy wannabe D.H. Lawrence who pops his northern face into Wikipedia a half hour before a lecture and jots down the names of two or three writers he has never read, with a few crafty quotes to lard his talk, which is about showing not telling, the use of voices, the deployment of figurative language, skill of differentiating characters, making a start, mentioning writers like Amis and Rushdie and Tyler and Franzen and some others nobody in Sheffield has ever heard of like W.G. Sebald, Dacia Maraini and William Maxwell … after that he will ask you to read aloud your own writing, something that is, of course, a lot easier for the tutor to pronounce upon than to write anything himself.”

As it turns out, Richie’s assessment is not far off the mark.

In Jerusalem, Richie furthers his research with the help of biblical scholar Father Prosper Duouis, a kindly semi-retired Dominican priest. A good part of the narrative that follows weaves in the events of the Third Crusade and Lion Heart’s campaigns to rescue the Holy Land and the Holy Cross for Christianity. Richie begins to view his project as a possible “upmarket Da Vinci Code.”

Another thread of complexity is introduced as Richie meets and falls in love with redheaded Noor, a Canadian (nation of frozen, polite optimists) Christian Arab working as a journalist:

“Do you know,” she says, “there is a belief that some of us Palestinian Christians have red hair because of our Crusader blood.”

“It could be true … Richard was a red head, six foot five; a red giant. Your ancestor, definitely.”

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“If he was gay, of course, it can’t be true.”

“He wasn’t gay. He’s a gay icon only because he spent no time with his wife and had no children. Not officially…”

“I heard he slept with the King of France.”

“In those days it was a diplomatic move to sleep in the same room as another king to demonstrate your trust. There were lots of servants in the room. And by the way, the first time any one suggested he was gay was in 1948. In medieval time he had a reputation for being very keen to get his hands on captured women…”

Richie and Noor decide to marry. In the meantime, she is off to Egypt on assignment and he continues his research in the musty clime of an Oxford library. Soon he learns that Noor has been kidnapped by armed thugs in Cairo —which just about all he is told. Richie calls Father Prosper, desperate for any shred of information. Prosper offers a gnomic pronouncement, worthy of Robert Towne’s Chinatown: “It’s complicated.  Raconter tout serait impossible—de Maupassant. It means it would be impossible to tell everything. This is Jerusalem. Nothing is ever complete, nothing is completely true.”

Next Richie plies ex-hedge fund operator and friend Ed’s current lover, Lettie, an Oxford Ph.D. who may or may not be a spook. His take on their meeting place is revealing: “a gloomy bar, dark wood and lighted cabinets of expensive whiskey and Eastern European waitresses and glass bowls of limes and maraschino cherries and olives … Just like my father, I loathe this kind of place: it suggests that the world of plush furniture and cocktails and trite sycophancy is all we really want. These places in my admittedly limited experience are always inhabited by businessmen, making banal but upbeat conversations, and by slightly foxed Holly Golightlys and personal assistants and PR people, drinking champagne in the hope of impressing their clients with their sophistication.”

He learns nothing of Noor’s fate that satisfies his anxiety, which quickly leads to a psychotic break. Ed brings him to a hospital where his attending doctor, Dr. Ella Wettinger, explains:

“It looks as if you have had what we call a psychotic break. We like a label; it’s just a convenient term … most usually brought on by extreme stress. Now that you are with us, I want to take your history. Particularly I want to ask you about stress. Have you had bereavement or other catastrophic disruptions in your recent life? And have you had this kind of episode before?”

Though a serious situation, the plot arc (such as it is) is not disturbed until a most unlikely (and frankly improbable) fact is disclosed that derails his plans and hopes of a life with Noor.

There is a point at which our narrator conjoins the two worlds of the novel: “The more I learn about these times, the more I find myself wondering how people managed to live in an age of fear, with the dark clouds of violent death, the plague and lawlessness always ready to rain thunderbolts on them. I doubt it is fully possible to inhabit their minds. It is hard enough to understand the minds of your own time in the same room. In the absence of other places to turn to, myth, the Church and relics like the Holy [True] Cross provided necessary comfort. People who do not have —or do not accept—rational explanation have always turned to whatever they could to serve the purpose. My father was one of these.”

So do the multiple narrative threads and Richard Carter’s brand of unreliable narration cohere sufficiently to claim success for this reasonably complex novel? I say they do.