Aussie Book Review: The Brewer's Tale by Karen Brooks

“It had been Mother's secret and mine, one passed down through the de Winter women for generations. I would ensure it was kept that way, until I was ready to pass it on.

When Anneke Sheldrake is forced to find a way to support her family after her father is lost at sea, she turns to the business by which her mother’s family once prospered: brewing ale.

Armed with her Dutch mother’s recipes and a belief that anything would be better than the life her vindictive cousin has offered her, she makes a deal with her father’s aristocratic employer: Anneke has six months to succeed or not only will she lose the house but her family as well.

Through her enterprise and determination, she inadvertently earns herself a deadly enemy. Threatened and held in contempt by those she once called friends, Anneke nonetheless thrives. But on the tail of success, tragedy follows and those closest to her pay the greatest price for her daring.

Ashamed, grieving, and bearing a terrible secret, Anneke flees to London, determined to forge her own destiny. Will she be able to escape her past, and those whose only desire is to see her fail?

A compelling insight into the brewer’s craft, the strength of women, and the myriad forms love can take.”

“A story of love, alcohol and treachery in medieval England”

From the patriarchal society of Medieval England, Karen Brooks brings us a riveting story about one woman who flies in the face of those influenced by the contemporary beliefs held about gender and authority, as she determines to rise above her circumstances.

Set in the year of Our Lord 1405, Anneke De Winter, a Dutch girl living in England, loses her father to the wild seas in a tragic accident. Having lost her mother previously, she is forced to make a living and keep a roof over the heads of herself, her younger twin brother and sister as well as their beloved servants when their landlord, the selfish and formidable Lord Hardred Rainford threatens to evict them if she can't come up with the money that her father owes him.

The De Winters, Anneke’s mother’s family, were respected brewers in their homeland of Holland, making their fortunes by brewing fine ale. Challenging the prevailing social mores with her desire to succeed and support her family, she reverts back to her mother’s timeless ale brewing recipes and secret rituals, realising that the only way to keep the hounds at bay is to brew ale so she can sell it.

She is met with reproach, slander and perverse sabotage but decides, after gaining an ally in Captain Stoyan, that she will go ahead with her plans. While not only needing to prove herself to Lord Rainford, she will still be required to get past her ghastly and spiteful cousin, Hiske, her brother Tobias, the official town tasters, Abbott Hubbard and the Friary in order to get her venture off the ground.

When Sir Leander Rainford, Tobias’ master and son of Lord Rainford, arrives at Holcroft House as Tobias’ guest, he at first views her with nothing more than contempt, but it is he, cloaked in hard to read actions, that eventually becomes somewhat of a knight in shining armour, even whilst Tobias has to finally concede his unhappiness with her choices.

As Anneke's little ale-brewing business finally begins to prosper, she decides to make plans to open an alehouse in order to supplement the money she is already making and pay off her debt quicker. So, when Westel Calkin arrives at Holcroft House offering his services, she views it as a blessing in disguise as the need for more hands to fulfil the obligations of her growing enterprise become necessary. However, when Tobias finally learns of her plans to open the alehouse, her idea is met with vehement objection and brother and sister part on bad terms.

After a tragedy of epic proportions befalls her family and servants, Anneke finds herself fleeing Elmham Lenn in the hopes of making a fresh start when fate seemingly intervenes and she finds herself being taken under the wing of the owner of a Bathhouse in London’s Southwark. It appears that things may very well begin to settle - that is, until past events come back to haunt her.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. Karen Brooks’ writing is simply superb, thrusting you immediately into Anneke's world with her use of all the elements of a good historical fiction novel, such as significant period detail, authentic settings, characterisation and tone, rendering a colourful portrait of a heroine bound by the politics of her time and showing us the real difficulties that woman of that era experienced and the dangers they faced. 

Told in two parts, the story is made all the more personal and powerful as she uses Anneke to narrate it from a time in her future. Anneke is a very strong protagonist displaying a strength that belies her age. She pits herself against all those that are self-righteous and stands her ground – and, in medieval England that’s no mean feat as there is no shortage of those who dare to call this woman “whore” and “slattern” and then proceed to treat her as such.

I enjoyed the fact that Karen wasn't afraid to put her protagonist through the wringer, because this lends even more authenticity to those times, placing Anneke in situations where she has to overcome corruption, jealousy, sabotage, prejudice, treachery and boundless tragedies of the worst kind. These of course, all contribute to her growth and we see our heroine showing us what she is made of as we cheer her on with each success and grieve with her for each setback and tragedy.

On a personal level and because of my upbringing in South Africa where I was taught to be bilingual in both English and the Dutch-descended Afrikaans, I was able to appreciate the smattering of Dutch words that Karen throws in and which clearly lends credibility to Anneke’s Dutch heritage. Even the names she has chosen for her Dutch characters are testament to this.

For those in unfamiliar territory, the Glossary at the beginning helps to highlight some of the medieval terms contained in the narrative, with the Author's Note expanding on some of the details of the period.

Coming in at a hefty five hundred and eight-two pages, this is by no means a quick read but, just like Anneke’s ale and beer is savoured by those who find it touching their lips, so, too, should this novel be savoured by the reader.

I wish to thank Harlequin Books Australia for providing me with a copy of this fine novel.

A Little About the Author

Karen Brooks is the author of nine novels and one non-fiction work, an academic of more than twenty-years experience, a newspaper columnist and social commentator, and has appeared regularly on national TV and radio.

Before turning to academia, she was an army officer for five years and prior to that, dabbled in acting. For some reason, all her career choices started with “A”: acting, army, academic and author.

She writes weekly for Brisbane’s Courier Mail and her column, which is an opinion piece, appears every Wednesday in the “Viewpoint” section and currently lives in Hobart, Tasmania.


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