The Great Level by Stella Tillyard

The joy for me of many a good novel is the discovery of events, places and people I would possibly never even have known about, or certainly given more than a passing thought to. Such is the case with The Great Level, essentially telling a tale of the draining of the Fens, among the most immense feats of civil engineering in pre-industrial Europe but carried out with little regard for the rights and customs of the incumbent Fenlanders.

The story is set in the mid 1600s and fluctuates between the Fens and America and initially is the reminiscences of Jan Brunt, a Dutch engineer instrumental in masterminding the drainage of the Great Level. Stella Tillyard conjures up wonderful atmospheric pictures of the bleakness and complexity of the watery marshes where Brunt encounters an almost ethereal figure, Eliza, one of the Fenlanders. They form a strange alliance when he teaches her to read and write and measure and she awakens his senses to the nature around him. Disaster strikes, sending him to New Amsterdam where he puts his skills to good use in the draining of Manhattan and Eliza to slavery in tobacco fields. Her wits raise her out of slavery to a new life, but I did find her story, although interesting, less convincing than his. A good read nevertheless! And I might just read it again.

Reviewed by a library member.