BOOKS: PICK OF THE WEEK

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The most recent novels of both Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens, who will talk about their work at the Swindon Festival of Literature on Wednesday, are modern takes on historical subjects.

Bainbridge's Master Georgie, which has won both plaudits and a string of prizes, uses as a backdrop the early months of the Crimean War, switching narration across three separate voices, all of whom are linked to the eponymous hero, George Hardy, a surgeon and photgrapher.

Myrtle is a foundling, adopted by the well-heeled Hardy household, Pompey Jones a street urchin, while Potter is Master Georgie's brother-in-law.

All four arrive in the Crimea after an earlier incident of black humour in Liverpool, when Hardy senior is found half-undressed but fully dead of a heart attack in a prostitute's bed by George. A cart from the local Punch and Judy man is used to transport the body inconspicuously to his own bedroom before rigor mortis sets in.

George is idolised in Myrtle's narrative, but Pompey Jones sees him differently. Mini-rivalries are played out against the backdrop of the larger one.

Rubens, in her 21st novel, I, Dreyfus, updates the scandalous case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer on the French General Staff in 1894 who was court-martialled for passing military secrets to Germany on the strength of a handwriting sample.

The real traitor, who had the same handwriting, was tried and acquitted three years later, but Dreyfus was only pardoned, although still found guilty with "extenuating circumstances", after campaigning efforts from public figures like Emile Zola. Rubens's modern-day Dreyfus is a headmaster of a public school who is found guilty of child murder. Like the original Dreyfus, his "crime" is being Jewish.

Bainbridge and Rubens will discuss these novels, the process of writing and researching historically based fiction, and the winning and "losing" of literary prizes. Should the Booker last year have gone to Master Georgie instead of the significantly less interesting Amsterdam by Ian McEwan? Sadly the reader can't be the judge.

The Swindon Festival of Literature, Beryl Bainbridge and Bernice Rubens, Arts Centre, Devizes Road, Swindon (01793 614837) Wed, 8pm, pounds 6-pounds 5.

`Master Georgie' by Beryl Bainbridge is published by Abacus, pounds 6.99; `I, Dreyfus' by Bernice Rubens is published by Little, Brown, pounds 16.99.

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