Historical fiction that deftly weaves engineering marvels, love, optimism, and tragedy against the backdrop of war and tensions in the mid-17th-century Old and New Worlds.
Jan Brunt is a Dutch engineer hired in 1649 for a mammoth project to drain 500 square miles of land in England. The successful project will create wealth and riches for a group of so-called Gentlemen Adventurers by creating arable land from wetlands, or fens, where salt and fresh water compete with each other daily for mastery. But doing so means the destruction of that natural world and the livelihoods of those who live within it. As Jan begins his work on the Great Level—as it is called—Eliza arrives in his life, emerging from the fens. Jan and Eliza are two people who are perfectly complete as and by themselves, yet they find joy in each other. This book is about memories and about love: of place, of person, of things well made, of partners well cherished. It is also about survival. The locations—from the orderly streets of the Netherlands to the wild fens of England tamed by engineering, the swampy shorelines of Virginia thick with cypress trees and the burgeoning cityscape of New York-to-be—are so finely wrought by author Tillyard (Tides of War, 2011, etc.) that they will embed themselves in your mind as distant places your thoughts return to wistfully, as if you yourself have traveled there. But as much as this story is one of optimism, tragedy is still prevalent: wildlands, families, bodies, engineering marvels, all are destroyed in time. But everything can be rebuilt, and for Jan, it is in memories, hard work, and future possibilities that he finds joy.
A dense, delightful read.