The final Ariana Franklin novel, 'Winter Siege'

Samantha Norman describes her journey to complete her mother's final Ariana Franklin novel.

It wasn't a question of 'wanting' to finish my mother's book; more a case of needing to. All mum's books were precious to her but this one was especially so.

She started writing 'Winter Siege' a few months before being rushed to hospital with cerebral vasculitis, a rare autoimmune disease which caused her brain to swell and put her in to a coma for three weeks. Nobody, least of all the doctors, expected her to survive and we, her family, were warned that even if she did, she would be intellectually impaired. No one, however, had reckoned on Mum's indomitable spirit and eventually, though in her own time, she emerged from it as sharp as ever and desperate to get back to writing.

The illness had weakened her physically, of course, but nevertheless she would drag herself out of bed to her desk at all hours to write as much as she could. And then one night when she was about half way through the first draft her remarkable heart, exhausted by too much
living, loving and, inevitably, the effects of the vasculitis gave up and
she died in her sleep.

She was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met but also the most awful nag, even unto death. And ever since I can remember she had nursed a conviction, always made vocal, Mum's opinions usually were that I was to be a novelist.

'You should write, she would tell me. That's what you ought to be doing.' And I would pretend not to listen and then, just like that, she wasn't there any more, only her memory, a half-finished novel and a voice echoing in my head.

So I started writing, a process which turned out to be so much more cathartic than conventional grieving. For the best part of a year I sat at my desk, or wandered around the back stacks of the London Library, her favourite place inhabiting my mother's world. It wasn't always easy. For a start 'Winter Siege' was set in the 12th Century which meant an enormous amount of research; on top of which she hadn't left any notes or plan, certainly none that I could find which meant there were times when I found myself floundering in the dark. But then there were other moments when, as if from nowhere, I'd get a sudden flash of inspiration and know with extraordinary clarity exactly the direction the novel should take.

Mum didn't approve of whimsy and yet there were times when secretly I wonder if the unfinished novel was somehow her last gift to me; the spur to start writing and the
opportunity for me to do one final thing for her.

Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin & Samantha Norman is out now and published by Bantam Press.


Ariana Franklin and Samantha Norman - The Winter Siege

"A superb and fitting last novel that will have you gripped on every page."

Winter 1141: Steven and Matilda are fighting over the crown of England and the nobles are changing sides as circumstances change. Bands of mercenaries move around the countryside earning a living where they can. One of these mercenaries is hiding in the reeds when he sees a little girl with flaming red hair being brutally attacked by one of his colleagues.

Later he finds the traumatised girl almost dead and holding a tiny piece of parchment. He takes her under his wing, slowly nursing her back to health and bringing her back to life emotionally. He teaches her his skill with the bow and disguises her as a boy to travel around the dangerous country. He vows to track down her vicious assailant and in the dangerous life he leads he meets the lowest and the highest in society. The chase culminates in an exciting denouement.

It is bittersweet to read the last of Diana Norman's brilliant historical novels under her pen name of Ariana Franklin. Her daughter, Samantha has done an amazing job at seamlessly completing the manuscript. I couldn't detect a different voice in the narrative. As always the taste and smell of the times is vividly brought to life, as is the quandary that the nobles seeking to maintain their lands and protect their people are faced with. Both Steven and Matilda have a claim to the throne. Both are flawed human beings who alienate their supporters. Does loyalty or pragmatism win the day? You will have to read and find out.

Along with the bigger picture, is the beautifully detailed and sympathetic drawing of people who live in different times but still show essential human traits, good and bad. I absolutely loved this book and am only sad that Ariana Franklin is no longer with us to write more of her wonderful books. A superb and fitting last novel that will have you gripped on every page.

Reviewed by: S.D.

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