Gillian Cross on Susan Price’s The Sterkarm Handshake, a book that she would give her eye teeth to have written…
As a child, I always longed to travel back in time, to know what it was like to live in another century. The Sterkarm Handshake comes as near as anything could to fulfilling that longing. It is a stunningly skilful evocation of life in the sixteenth-century Scottish Borders.
But it is no mere historical novel. Infiltrators from the polluted twenty-first century are wooing one of the Border clans, aiming to steal fossil fuels and set up a tourist industry. The sixteenth-century Sterkarms take these infiltrators for Elves – powerful but untrustworthy – and try to manipulate them into giving gifts. When an injured Sterkarm is taken into the twenty-first century for treatment, he is convinced that he has been snatched away to Elfland. Two different world-views meet head-on and the past and the future clash, with tragic results,
Because we can identify with both sides, the book offers a rare opportunity to understand a clash of cultures from the inside, and grasp why it is so hard to make peace. It also tells a fast-moving story full of vivid, original characters, and it made me think and laugh and cry. I would give my eye teeth to have written it.
Susan Price’s The Sterkarm Handshake is published by Scholastic, 0 590 54301 6, £14.99 hbk.
Gillian Cross’s latest book is Tightrope , Oxford University Press, 0 19 271804 5, £10.99 hbk, 0 19 271750 2, £5.99 pbk (see review in BfK , No. 117).