When she returned to the hotel, she discovered the senator pacing on the sidewalk in front of the entrance. “Where on earth have you been?”
“Walking.” She held up her camera. “Taking pictures.”
“Never mind that. Come on, we don’t have a moment to lose!”
“But…I must change clothes.”
“No time for that!” He bundled her into a waiting transom cab and ordered her to tell the driver to make all possible haste.
Muriel asked, “Where are we going?”
“The Abbey of Saint Denis. You have heard of it?”
“Of course. But what is the hurry?”
“Listen very carefully. We have an opportunity. No, scratch that. We may have an opportunity. It is why I made this journey. Your conversation with the prime minister has opened a door. Perhaps.”
“I-I don’t understand.”
“Everything I told you and your parents is true. We are here in search of antiquities. One item, to be precise. One very precious, rare item.”
The idea came to her in a flash of sunlight, in the hasty drumbeat of the horse’s hooves. “A reliquary.”
“Were you behind my research assignment at the Smithsonian?”
“I merely made a suggestion to the director. In case this item did indeed surface.”
“How long have you been hunting for this reliquary?”
“All my adult life.” He was a man transformed. Gone was the polished and urbane man of power. In his place sat a man on fire with a passion that defied his years. “I heard of this when I was in university. Something spoke to me. I would like to think it was God. But all I can say for certain is that I knew at that very moment this quest was to play a vital role in my life.”
She felt the electric pulse of his zeal deep inside and shivered. “What does the reliquary contain?”
Before he turned to her, before he spoke, she knew. There was only one article that could so transform this man, lift him from the realms of earthly power, and catapult him into a hunt that had occupied him for decades.
“The True Cross,” he replied. “Perhaps. And if so, we are on the trail of a fragment that has been lost for over a thousand years.”
It’s 1923, and a resilient Paris is starting to recover from the ravages of World War I and the Spanish Flu Epidemic. Enter young Muriel Ross, an amateur American photographer tasked with documenting the antiques that her employer, U.S. Senator Tom Bryan, has traveled to France in order to acquire.
But events take a dangerous turn when she discovers that the senator is on a mission far more momentous—and potentially deadly—than a mere shopping trip. At the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Senator Bryan asks Muriel to photograph an astonishing artifact: a piece of the True Cross, discovered by Empress Helena—a historical figure familiar to readers of The Pilgrim. When rumors surface that another fragment has been unearthed, Muriel becomes enmeshed in a covert international alliance dedicated to authenticating the fragment—and protecting it from those who will stop at nothing to steal and discredit it.
I have by no means read everything that Davis Bunn has written, but if there is one thing I have learned to expect from his writing, it’s ‘atmosphere’. I wish I could think of a better word for it; in fact, I wish I could define exactly how he does it. All I know is that when I picked up this book and began reading, the here and now dissolved and I entered the world of 1920s Paris – not just its sights and sounds, but its collective mood in the aftermath of the Great War; or to use Muriel’s own terms, its light and shadow.
Muriel Ross’s mother cannot understand why her daughter would sacrifice the chance for a husband and a proper future for the sake of her work as a researcher at the Smithsonian. For Murial, the answer is simple: She wants more out of life. And that is exactly what she gets when she travels to France and then Constantinople with her employer and long time family friend, Senator Tom Bryan.
As a photographer, Muriel is happiest when she can place a camera between herself and the rest of the world. During her time in Paris her lens captures both the strain and the joy of the Parisian people, who have endured not only the war but then the subsequent influenza epidemic. In particular, she connects with Monsieur Charles Fouchet, the private secretary to the minister of the interior and a man still living in war’s shadow. However, when she has the opportunity to view and photograph a reliquary – a fragment of wood from the True Cross – little does she realise the chain of events that will follow.
Whisked away to Constantinople in the company of both Senator Bryan and Charles Fouchet at the same time as Atatürk takes control of the city, the search for another piece of the True Cross comes to an abrupt halt when they are repeatedly refused an audience with the caliph; until the vizier’s wife approaches Muriel with an offer: They will give them the reliquary in return for their assistance to escape Turkey and obtain American citizenship. The complication? There are seven reliquaries and only one is authentic. They need Muriel to determine which one that is.
This was a surprisingly quick read, but Bunn’s writing is concise without sacrificing richness of content. The novel is full of historical details (even a visit to Coco Chanel!) without being dominated by them, and there is a muted tension throughout the novel springing not only from the quest to recover the reliquary, but also the clash of political objectives and Charles Fouchet’s struggle to accept his losses – both family and faith. And then there is the writing… simply delicious!
The ending of this novel caught me by surprise. There was one aspect in particular that I had not been expecting, but as I thought about it afterwards I wondered that I hadn’t expected it. There is resolution, and yet in other ways it feels as though Muriel’s story is only just about to begin. Perhaps there is more to come, I don’t know. I would certainly be in line to read it if there is.
If you’re after a beautifully atmospheric historical novel with tension bubbling just beneath the surface, then give this one a go.
I was given a complimentary copy of this novel by the publisher through Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.
Release date: 19 February 2016
Publisher: Franciscan Media
Author’s website: http://www.davisbunn.com/
This novel tells the story of Helena, the mother of Constantine, and her search for the True Cross. It is related to ‘The Fragment’ in that it tells the history behind the reliquaries Muriel views, but it is not necessary to read it before ‘The Fragment’.