Review: The Carnelian Tree – when Oxford meets Iraq

In bed on Burns Night 2003, Judith can’t sleep and then hears strange noises in the house. It turns out that Professor Cedric Gilbert has been murdered, bashed over the head with a bust of Socrates.

Who killed the professor and why has his research assistant Jared Kumar disappeared? Did he have something to do with the murder? He is dating medical student Sophie who is Judith’s daughter.

The dead academic is a world authority on ancient texts and the forces of war are gathering as the West is gearing up to invade Iraq.

One of the most likeable characters is Abbie Goldman, a Rhodes scholar (like Bill Clinton), whose family are well-connected. From her arrival, you would imagine Abbie is something of a good-time girl – she makes her entrance in the same clothes she had on when she went out the previous night.

Abbie has depths, however, and justifies her position as Jude’s best college friend.

As well as a murder, the story covers geopolitics, ancient history, kidnapping, international travel, High Table dinners, misogyny and romance.

Just in case you forget Judith is from north of the border, she reverts, on occasion, to “Scottishisms” and the author has the habit of putting perfectly normal words in “inverted commas”. I don’t understand, for example, why a couple having sex is said to “be at it” rather than just at it.

For a sophisticated, divorced, Guardian-reading graduate in her 40s, Judith comes across as rather naive. She’s a teacher in a Glaswegian comprehensive so surely she must have experienced quite a bit of life.

The Carnelian Tree is an entertaining read and its 333 pages zip by.

Oh yes, what is a carnelian tree of the title?

A carnelian is a brownish-red semi-precious gemstone and, according to one google search I did, If you’re looking for a stone to spice up your sex life, carnelian is perfect to place under your mattress. A tree is a creation of carnelian stones hung on a tree-like frame.

So there you go…

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