“I am going to New France.”
Discovery by Barbara Greig is an immersive story of love, loss, challenge, and fate that keeps you hooked from beginning to the end.
Discovery is a dual-timeline saga, set in 1557 and from 1607-1611, about the fates of various members of the Gharsia family. Originally Moriscos from Spain, who fled the country when the Inquisition was at its height, they blend in with the Protestant towns of the Pays d’Oc in south-western France.
The Prologue starts in the year 1607 when young Gabriel Gharsia, bored with his studies to become a physician and itching to go on a grand adventure, tells his grandfather, Luis Gharsia, of his plans to join Samuel Champlain, the explorer, on his next journey to New France. He scoffs at Luis’ suggestion he complete his studies first and instead prepares for his big journey.
Then we go back to 1557 when a young Luis returns to England with his childhood friend Henri Gaulbert to rescue the daughters of a late business partner. Alyce and Meg Weaver are Protestants, their lives in danger under Queen Mary’s strict Catholic rule. Their brother had died a martyr’s death by fire for the cause, and the fear within the family is palpable. The elder, Alyce, married to a priest who now has abandoned her, has a young daughter, Jane, and is pregnant again. Not the ideal conditions for a perilous journey across the sea to the Pays d’Oc. Luis cares deeply for Alyce, despite being married to Marie, an agreement of convenience. Tragedy strikes on their journey, but eventually they make it south. But then tragedy strikes again, leaving Luis with several challenges.
Forward we go to 1608. Gabriel, accompanied by his childhood friend Luc Gaulbert (grandson of Henri who had accompanied Luis to England), has landed in the New World, but the great adventure turns out to be hard manual work, coupled with the constant threat of disease and death and a harsh environment. His hopes of being employed as a physician dashed, he is a mere labourer who grows to resent his decision. The threat of attacks by local tribes at odds with the French settlers becomes real. When Gabriel is taken captive, he is brought to a Mohawk settlement several days’ journey away. Only the proof of his hard work, visible in his physique and his hands, save his life. Over the following chapters, we discover Gabriel’s challenges as he, slowly but surely, becomes part of the Mohawk community. But he still hasn’t forgotten his roots, and his inner conflict continues. Should he stay, or try to find his way back?
“Storm clouds are gathering now we Huguenots have lost our protector.”
Then the story moves to 1610 and we meet Elizabeth, Luis’ granddaughter and Gabriel’s aunt, who lives in Caors with an aged Luis. Her brother Thomas, a highly respected tutor in Huguenot circles is in Montauban, leaving her to deal with the family home and their vines on the land adjacent to the Gaulberts, a three-hour journey away. When on a rare visit, Thomas brings home Pedro Torres, a Morisco recently fled from Spain, who he’d found almost starved in Marsilha (Marseille). Luis welcomes Pedro to his home, and a deep friendship develops between two men who share a secret faith. On Luis’ death, Thomas employs Pedro as a caretaker of the accounts of the Gharsia lands. Irritated at first, almost to the point of aggressive, Elizabeth eventually acquiesces as Pedro settles into his duties. A maid is hired to ensure no improprieties happen.
One day, Elizabeth comes across her late mother’s diaries, and she uncovers some hidden truths about her family that shock her. Pedro offers his guidance and support, and slowly, they grow closer, yet he is fully aware of his status-a man of no means. He still plans to go to Amsterdam, where the religious strife was kept at bay. But can he leave Elizabeth without revealing his feelings at all?
As the chapters veer between several years and points of view, we discover more about the various members of the Gharsia family. In fact, we grow quite close to them. Luis’ love for Alyce; his affection, later, for Meg, her younger sister and Elizabeth’s mother; Elizabeth’s own struggles as a forward-thinking female in her thirties without a husband; Pedro’s steadfast character and secret admiration for Elizabeth—it all sweeps us with it as the saga continues. With the end of each section, I wanted to know more, but was swiftly sidetracked by another character’s gripping story.
“Will you protect me when our enemies come?”
Gabriel’s character development the deepest of all. He starts out as a brash—and rather selfish—young man, who quickly grows disillusioned with his choice of adventure when things don’t turn out the way he’d imagined. Then, the assimilation into the Mohawk tribe, reluctant at first, is gradual, and throughout, we get a sense that, as he faces their enemies and other challenges, he learns about the duties of a life a far cry from his carefree days as a student in Paris. His internal development is shown very realistically and believable. The author gives him time to learn, to experience his challenges, and to find the path that I wished him to take a long time before he comes to a final decision.
The religious conflict of the times is well described. We can feel a sense of danger and the fear of discovery. A nasty encounter Elizabeth has in Montauban brings home the fact that even the slightest hint of non-conforming can trigger perilous events. The author shows the punishment meted out by the Inquisition on those it believed to be insincere in their conversion, and the dangers the Moriscos faced by hiding their true faith beneath the façade. I’d never heard of Moriscos before I read Discovery, and I had to read up about them.
The timeline spans several years, leaving a few gaps that are filled with Meg’s diary, but overall, it works very well in showing how their lives move forward. At times, I’d have liked more detail, but I’m aware of word count limits, and with so many characters vying for our attention, it would have added another volume.
As a resident in the new French region now called Occitanie, I loved the author’s use of the Occitan place names in the Pays d’Oc, and the way she painted a vibrant picture of the land, the vineyards, and the towns in your mind’s eye. It added a strong sense of authenticity. I have been to Cahors and the surrounding area, and I could easily visualize Elizabeth and her home there.
However, I had to learn to distinguish all the various characters and their relationships to each other, especially when Elizabeth read her mother’s diaries. At times, I had to check the List of Characters, to remind myself, so having that was very useful.
Having so many characters also led to some instances of ‘head-hopping’ which took a while to get used to, but it was ultimately unavoidable, as the author had to ensure we—the readers—know everything we needed to know.
And whilst any loose ends are neatly tied up, I thought the Epilogue, several years later, felt a little rushed. But it was an ending that intrigued me, including the missing years, so now I hope there will be a sequel.
I would love to read more about the Gharsia family, and I’m delighted to discover there are two novels preceding this one. I shall look out for them.
Discovery by Barbara Greig sweeps you off your feet with its beautiful setting, the dangerous undercurrents of religious dissent, and its group of warm, realistic characters with all their strengths and flaws. A true family saga that makes you research the history of the religious wars and learn about the Moriscos and their plight. A highly engaging read!
The Coffee Pot Book Club