The Bishop’s Girl is a work of fiction by author Rebecca Burns, recently published by Odyssey Books. Exotic locales, secret meetings, time travel, grave robbers, international mystery, illicit liaisons, mutiny, war, and murder—The Bishop’s Girl has it all. The reader is taken on an intriguing journey that takes place both in the present and in the past, over one hundred years apart. The main characters search for many things, most importantly the truth about the secret life of a beloved English Bishop, Anthony Shacklock, and the identity of the young woman whose body was found on top of his buried coffin.
This page turner first transports the reader to a cold, muddy, church graveyard late one rainy night in 1919, where a less than legal exhumation reveals an extra body buried in the grave of Bishop Shacklock. It is not known who placed the body there or the identity of the corpse, the impetus behind the research of Professor Waller and his part-time archivist, Jessica “Jess” Morris. Working in the library building named for the mysterious bishop, Professor Waller and Jess are pressured to complete the research quickly. The time for Professor Waller to complete and present his thirty years of research is running out, since he is to retire in six months. This creates a conflict for Jess and requires her to give more of a commitment and more time than the six years of research she has already performed, more than she can spare. Jess worries about not being there for her teenagers, lively daughter Megan and angst-ridden son James, and is met with resentment with each absence from home by her husband Alec, forcing her to confront her failing marriage. Jess’s conflict grows even larger when others demand time and commitment from her as well. Jess’s well-meaning college friend, Marie, frequently telephones Jess, attempting to schedule regular lunch dates with her and has told her young adult son Hayden to provide comfort and protection to Jess for her upcoming research trips out of town. Meanwhile, fellow researcher Billy Butterfield suddenly wants to tag along on every excursion out of town more due to ulterior motives than those purely involving research. It quickly seems that the actions of Jess Morris will determine whether Professor Waller can complete and present his much-needed research about Bishop Shacklock and resolve the mystery of the corpse buried with him in time to retire. Jess is presented with problem-solving possibilities and promise, but so many things are changing so quickly in her life, that she is left confused about what she should do and what she really can change. Jess’s obstacle-filled life is every bit that of Odysseus’s as though Poseidon plotted the many hindrances and obstructions himself.
As the book progresses, readers learn more about the personal lives and behavior of the characters, and the chapters begin to alternate between the time at present and that of the past in what seems like time travel. When this occurs, critics may assert that two fundamental problems exist. Firstly, that the amount of time and attention to the subplot about the affairs and behavior of the characters rivals the importance of the main plot about the missing details of the life of Bishop Shacklock and the unknown corpse buried with him; and secondly, that the increasing frequency of the back and forth between the present day and that of over one hundred years ago causes confusion and disturbs the flow and pace of the story. I can assuage potential critics by averring that in the matter of plot rivalry, the subplot that reveals the very personal behavior of the characters instead fleshes them out and gives them depth and description, providing background and support for their actions. With regards to the issue of frequent time travel, both the rationale and execution of this device by the author is nearly seamless and is genius in its strategy. Mechanically, this helps to create a robust pace and an unobstructed flow, along with a clear and intriguing plot. As the story builds and more is known, more time is spent in both worlds as certain events mirror one another and eventually merge in their similarity and sameness. The reader can compare and contrast the events and people of both the present and the past, and enjoy the resolution of many loose threads.
Rebecca Burns is one of my favorite authors due to her ability to whisk the reader away to time and place the world over, as she creates a sense of scene and setting with vivid, colorful landscapes and locales, more realistic than reality. In The Bishop’s Girl, she does not disappoint. While The Bishop’s Girl differs from the author’s previous literary offerings, illustrating her talent for a variety of writing, it is however similar in that it is imaginative, fresh, and takes the reader on an intriguing journey, a page-turner to the end. Having published and reviewed several works by Rebecca Burns, we at Halfway Down the Stairs hope to have the opportunity to continue to do so in the future.
Sherri Miller is a fiction editor at Halfway Down the Stairs.
© 2017, Sherri Miller