Roanoke

By MARGARET LAWRENCE

Peepholes — that’s what tapestries were good for. You hung them with the broken threads just on top of certain holes in the oak panelling of the wall underneath. Within the wall itself, there was a space just wide enough for a watcher to walk through. John Mowbray, an Elizabethan “spider” (a spy in modern parlance) gives us this bit of tradecraft as he snoops on his employers at Hampton Court Palace early in Margaret Lawrence’s astonishingly good new historical novel about the fate of the Roanoke Colony in the New World. Mowbray is the book’s narrator, but it is his remarkable colleague Gabriel North who holds center stage. We first meet North as he saves Elizabeth’s from assassination in 1585. His dubious reward: orders to set sail for the New World in a foolhardy convoy. Commanded by inexperienced and unworthy officers, the Roanoke Colony became one of history’s most baffling mysteries, its occupants disappearing into the shadows of time. Lawrence wonderfully layers on top of this enigma a queen to rival Elizabeth. North is sent to Virginia to seduce a fictional Native American woman called Na’ia: “Na’iya — so the Secota tribesmen spoke her name, with a slight stop of the throat, as though she took their breath away…” She and North begin a tangled relationship, he first winning the hearts of the widow’s two young children and then earning their mother’s love and loyalty. But when North is called back to England by Elizabeth, Na’ia appears to go on with her life as before. Only a brief, heartbreaking final scene on a Breton beach lets us know the truth.