On more than a few occasions my Dad said to me “From the smallest acorn comes the biggest oak”, a folk homily that nicely encapsulates The Bitter Trade by Alexander Piers. Set in England at the beginning of the Glorious Revolution and into the Restoration this book is the story of the wonderfully named Calumny Spinks, a young illiterate with a Huguenot mother, a guild-less weaver with a dark past for a father, and nothing going for him but a handsome face and a talent for mimicry.
From a fly spot of a village in the countryside Spinks travels to London, and finds himself, knowingly or not, right in the middle of people and events that will shape the future of England, and all of Europe. The reason for most of these calamitous events is that a handful of coffee merchants want to give the people a better brew to drink, and make a few fortunes on the way, and because of all the guilds and rules and tariffs that stand in their way they end up overthrowing a government. If this seems difficult to swallow you have to remember that in this era coffee-houses were the like the internet, a place where people of all castes and classes could meet and talk in anonymity.
There is a lot in this novel that smacks of the classics picturesque, but it is very much a modern novel, grounded in reality, and at times steeped in the brutality of the era. The story barely has begun before Calumny witnesses a member of his family being scolded, with in that era, as it does here, means being lynched, usually ending in death. From there Calumny gets caught up in a series of plots and encounter that flies by in a pell-mell fashion, as he moves through society, sometimes a pawn, and sometimes in charge of his own destiny, but always with wit, and a panache that I have seldom encountered. Mr. Piers does a sensational job of keeping the plot twists and turns come, while never slowing down the story. At the same time this novel is rife with characters, some with large roles, and other small, but all fully realized, and all seeming that as if their stories are going to keep going even after they step from the pages of this book.
I have yet to speak about Calumny. He is not exactly the nicest character, and often comes across as a selfish bastard, but he manages to redeem himself just enough, and he is always fascinating. This is one of my favorite novels that I have read recently, and am happy to say, for a change, that a sequel is in the works. I will be waiting with bated coffee-breath.