Skip to Main Content

Call Upon the Water

A Novel

About The Book

This “story of passion, possession, and a painful education in love” (Sarah Dunant, author of In the Name of the Family), spanning several decades in 17th-century Great Britain and America, evocatively explores the power of nature versus man and man versus woman by “a lovely writer [who] can take your breath away” (The New York Times Book Review).

I am an engineer and a measured man of the world. I prefer to weigh everything in the balance, to calculate and to plan. Yet my own heart is going faster than I can now count.

In 1649, Jan Brunt arrives in Great Britain from the Netherlands to work on draining and developing an expanse of marshy wetlands known as the Great Level. It is here in this wild country that he meets Eliza, a local woman whose love overturns his ordered vision. Determined to help her strive beyond her situation, Jan is heedless of her devotion to her home and way of life. When she uses the education Jan has given her to sabotage his work, Eliza is brutally punished, and Jan flees to the New World.

In the American colonies, profiteers are hungry for viable land to develop, and Jan’s skills as an engineer are highly prized. His prosperous new life is rattled, however, on a spring morning when a boy delivers a note that prompts him to remember the Great Level, and confront all that was lost there. Eliza has made it to the New World and is once again using the education Jan gave her to bend the landscape—this time to find her own place of freedom.

Perfect for fans of Hilary Mantel and Geraldine Brooks, Call Upon the Water is “a haunting book with characters who stay with the reader as their lives unfold like a sea mist” (Philippa Gregory, New York Times bestselling author).

Note: This book was published in the UK under the title The Great Level.


Call Upon the Water Chapter 1
Nieuw Amsterdam, Manatus Eylandt.

The colony of Nieuw Nederland in America.

The 1st day of April, 1664.

A fair day in prospect.

The sky clear, the wind, by my weather vane, from the east.

High tide by the Stadt Huys at 20 minutes after 1 o’clock.

I have lived, for almost a dozen years, here in the colony of Nieuw Nederland, that we call the New World, though it is rightly only new to us, being as old as all creation. This, the city of Nieuw Amsterdam, is sited on the Eylandt of Manatus. It is truly not much of a city: to call it such is the pride of the inhabitants, or the way they talk in letters home. It is a town, most on the firm ground, but in part, as is our Dutch way, on land we have drained. I daresay that before long, if the colony grows and survives the difficult times, we will begin to take land from the sea both as protection and out of habit.

When I think as a Dutchman, if such I am still, I know that it is not other nations that we Dutch most dream of conquering, or other peoples. Our real enemy and our best companion is something quite different: the force of nature itself. We have been compelled for centuries to attempt the separation of land and water wherever we find them muddled up. This is our struggle; this our way of being. Here in the New World there is surely land enough for all. Mountains and plains, hills and huge valleys, it is supposed, stretch away beyond the western horizon in a vastness never seen before. They bring fear and entrancement for some. Yet we Dutch turn the other way. We seek out the waterlines: shores, rivers, estuaries and marshes.

So it is no surprise that from my garret window I look down on the canal that my men dug from a filthy stream and embanked as my contract demanded. It’s a strip of water, the Heere Gracht, jeweled silver in the morning sun. I ran it straight south to the river’s edge, clean and simple, as befits an engineer. At the shore, where once the land slid under the water in a disorderly way, the two are now divided by pilings that have given Manatus Eylandt a firm edge all round its tip. Such is the purpose of embanking: to make an edge, a clear boundary and separation.

Beyond the confines of Nieuw Amsterdam, marsh, sand and river still mingle raggedly up the island’s eastern side. There, twice a day, the tide pushes up the ribbony creeks and into the marshes. The glistening brown mud waits, and welcomes the water. When the tide goes out the flats are dappled with gulls and egrets sucking up worms and shrimp. Their cries reach me in my attic in the early morning, and through the darkness, with the casement open, comes the quock-quock of night herons searching for crabs. This is still a small place, two thousand souls. The shore and the sea are right there, beyond the wharfs and the wall. They wait, as once the flood waited, for the call to rise and cover the earth. One day the flood will come again. This is the knowledge that a Dutchman always has.

I have been in possession here long enough to call this place my home, though it is inside my house, more than on these streets, that I am myself, which is all that I wish for. Nieuw Amsterdam cannot be like the old city of Amsterdam, though the people still have the voices of their homes, the ne and ja, goedemorgen and goedenavond when the sun sinks beyond the far bank of the Noort Rivier. The very first to come here in the ship the Halve Maen also brought the flags that flew from the Fort and the Stadt Huys in bands of orange, white and blue.

That was half a century ago, and Nieuw Amsterdam flourishes in many respects, and now begins to grow. The better sort amongst the houses, such as mine is, in every way resemble those that were left behind, with gabled ends proud onto the street, high stoops and half-doors for the summer. Tall windows flank the front door, with sturdy casements and the clearest glass to be found here. I have tacked a brass plate to the door with my name and profession: Jan Brunt, Ingenieur. Along with the hinges of my doors and the clasps on my windows, this plate is polished so bright that the clouds may be observed running across it, or a face reflected if it comes up close.

On the first floor of my house stand three more windows and another in the gable end where the year of building, 1654, is finely writ in curling iron numbers, bolted into the bricks. On the gable top stands my weather vane, by which each morning I see at a glance how the wind blows. Behind my house I grow vegetables and fruit trees, sheltering them with a fine wall and taking advantage of the western sun. Tulips and other tender bulbs do not flourish here, or flower once only. I lift them for the hottest summer months, when they lie cool in my cellar like gentleman’s claret, and replant them in the autumn, yet they come back too tall and without strength.

Inside, too, the houses are much the same as you might see in Leiden or in Delft. New World oak makes good dense flooring, and the carpets on the tables come from the East Indies as do those at home. Our hearths are tiled in blue and milky white. More than anything, more even than the portraits and little landscapes transported in trunks and boxes, these tiles bring Holland here. Sitting by my fire I can lean close to its canals and windmills, its dogs and children, soldiers, scholars and skiffs at sea. Each blue brushstroke is tender and familiar to me, like a touch on the cheek.

Much is taken from old Amsterdam, but not the light, or the wind, or its long low sky. Even as a child I knew my home, its extent and look on the map. “That is Holland,” I could say to myself. I knew its shape, the round blue scoop of the Zuyder Zee, and the splayed fingers of the River Rhine that stretched into the sea.

So familiar was the picture of Holland in my mind, that I did not pay it any heed. Only when I came here to the New World did I understand the comfort of that shape, its borders drawn in black or red. Here we are, it says; here we are snug and safe, and beyond the lines lies something different. Here one thing ends and another begins. Mark it well and preserve it well.

In the New World we are just beginning to make our edges safe in this very small part, four or five islands with that of Manatus at the center. Of the rest we can say little and draw less. We know the rivers well enough, and the great lakes in the northern areas. We know there is another side, and I have seen a map of it; but what lies between, the great immensity of it, is unknown. Sometimes men appear in Nieuw Amsterdam with tales of high mountains and huge animals, but they may be liars or tell fantastic stories for the fame of it.

There was a man here, a trader in furs with a large fortune, who determined to get across to the far coast discovered by fanatic Spanish missionaries. He talked of nothing else but the journey and his desire to make out the whole shape of America once and for all and then to establish settlements therein. The wildmen, with their vagueness in matters of distance, were no good to him in his preparations. He showed them a map of the two coasts and the blank between, but they shrugged, not knowing what a map might be; or perhaps, wishing him to leave that land to them, they turned away. So he would have to do it himself, make the journey and the map.

One fine autumn day about five years ago he set off, crossed the Noort Rivier and struck west. I never heard of him again. Somewhere his bones lie in that space, unless he went south to the French territories or somehow made it to safety. We still do not know what this great land looks like, neither with our own eyes, nor in the way that mapmakers have it appear, stretched out on paper.

So I live with the unknown at my back, yet happily. I have determined, this April morning, with the note next to me on my table, to record what occurred, and let nothing remarkable escape me. The wilde mannen, the wildmen who inhabit the lands beyond the city, say that the sun sees all things. I wish, then, to be a bit like the sun; to see all things, to write them down, and also to record the cloudy world in our hearts that so often cannot come to the surface but shakes life from below.

Today the sun shines across my table onto the inkstand, with my pens and the sand that blots the ink. The pen I hold is my companion, balanced and patient. Words spread from its beak across the paper and follow the twisted ribbon of my life as the maiden Ariadne followed the thread, back to where I start. Word by word my scratches make a shape, a history that comes to me in the form I have writ it.

Oh, how small a word is and how much it must carry. I picture one curled in a basket, weighing almost nothing, though a whole heart might lie in it. Little wonder then that I often score my words through impatiently, or exchange one for another. A man may put a whole thing in language and still find it does not fit what he wishes to say.

It is difficult, but I have time. I am not a man of words, though I have made my peace with them. Often I cannot catch the sort of chatter that falls through the air. I am uneasy in gatherings where talk and laughter are loud and swelling. I aim for solidity, and trust to things that can be measured. I like to pace out the world, understand it with the soles of my feet and my compass and rope. If not that, in other ways, with the tips of my fingers.

This morning, the cuff of my gown moves across the desk with a dry murmur. This gown is deep blue, indigo dyed, and lined in silk the color of ivory. Layers of wool are packed between the silks like pages of a book. I describe it thus precisely because, wearing it every day in winter and on brisk spring mornings when the wind hits us from Lange Eylandt and the ocean beyond, it is become a part of me. Beneath, I’m all black and white; stockings and breeches black, a fine Virginia cotton shirt—white if the girl Griete has done her work—and underneath there is my own nakedness, as nature sees it. There I am a big-built man, and am in height also much taller than most of my countrymen, who are in the main a squat people. My hair is gray and falls to the shoulder in the manner of men here. I have not grown a beard, but shave myself each morning before the glass, a square of muslin round my neck, the razor sharpened daily on its stone. Facing out at me from the glass I see a man counting through his forty-fourth year. I am not yet old, but neither in the prime of life. I am somewhere in between, though I regard it not. My own person interests me little; it is all beyond me that makes up the horizon of my eye.

Here, as in every place, it pleases me to order the day. I rise early, for I sleep ill, and have done for several years, and do not like to lie in bed. If it is fine and already warm I may throw on my gown and take a turn around the garden, where I check the plants and enjoy the quiet half-light before dawn. On other days, and in the winter, I light the stove in my garret and heat the jug of coffee left from yesterday. Then the day will unfold according to my duties and inclinations.

Once she arrives and has the range heated, my housekeeper Lysbet Thyssen brings me hot water with San Domingo ginger. When she first came to work for me, I showed her how I like it. I snap a finger off the tuber or take a slice of it, and peel away the rind, then cut the flesh to small cubes and pour the boiling water onto them. I have noticed that a tuber of ginger, once cut, puts forth immediately tentative filaments into the world. One might think that the amputated part this way seeks what is lost or, like a person young at heart, straight off puts forth a new shoot.

With the ginger I have a slice of dark bread, with butter at its side and a piece of honeycomb like a rich man’s ruff, sometimes from my neighbor’s hive, most often from the wildmen who bring it in. I have watched the wildmen harvest honey, contriving to smoke out the inhabitants of the hive before lowering it from the trees. At the appointed time, if I am at home, Lysbet comes with coffee, fresh ground in the pestle—and so we go on in an orderly fashion.

With Lysbet Thyssen I have an understanding. Her husband Maryn having died, she came to work for me some years ago. She brings her apron with her each day, rolled and ironed. Lysbet is a well set-up widow of forty-five, a buxom, bustling woman with broad calves and curls tucked under her bonnet. I know well that she would like more from me than wages, but though I have shared my bed with her on some occasions, I do not allow her a way to my heart, and marriage I can never contemplate. This she discerns though we do not speak of the matter. I have my joys and pains and she has hers. It will do no good for them to be mixed together.

On the hearth before the stove I have left a few shells, delicate and waxy, each half of a hinged pair. They might be wings of angels, white as the moon. On a shelf set into the wall encrusted objects lie scattered. Some are pitted old things—buckles, buttons and keys; others are coins, fused together like bunched petals. Copper gleams green through the ancient earth that clings to them, hard as stone; they seem not to have decayed in the ground, though lying, perhaps, for hundreds of years. Next to them stands a pottery vessel, light brown in color, scored round the neck and open at the top. It once housed human ashes, buried in the ground from where I took it.

Lysbet asked me once why I keep these objects and I replied that they are a warning that all the things of this world will come to dust. Yet it seems to me today as I look that they will not decay, but rather endure forever.

It is the two figures propped by the stove that always draw my eye; two women who seem from another world. One is carved from some crystalline rock, the other made of fired clay. The clay woman stands on stumps of legs, her arms insignificant. Most of her is massed round her long breasts and hanging belly. The gash of her belly button looks like an opening to the underworld, that of her mouth like a wound.

The other woman is cut from crystal. She is fishlike and liquid in comparison to the rough clay of the first, and cool to the touch, even in summer. Breasts, stomach, hips, buttocks and thighs grow from one another in smooth egg shapes; legs fused like a mermaid’s tail, pinhole eyes. She is a sea creature flung up from the deep, ancient and suspicious. While I write at the table, the note before me, she watches and waits, impassive, through the morning.

Hendrick comes back at midday. He is dragging his heels in a jaunty way.


“Nothing. Frederick cannot remember who gave him the paper, only that having your name on the front made it easy, and so he gave it to me.”

Hendrick looks at me with curiosity. I cast my eyes down to the path, not wishing him to see anything that might pass across my face, then right myself and dig about in the pocket of my gown for a few coins.

“I thank you, Hendrick. If you hear anything, or if Frederick does, come back and tell me.”

“Of course, Mijnheer Brunt.”

Hendrick takes off his old hat and stows the coins in its lining. He is a boy used to fighting, and spends his days roaming the city. He lives off its scraps and sometimes its kindness, though he takes no heed of that. I watch him put the hat back on his head and run off down the path, and think that Nieuw Amsterdam is a good place to hide things. And this holds true for me as well as for him.

Nature, the whole of our earth, is full of an intelligence that I try to discover. Each day I estimate the rise of the water by the Stadt Huys by means of a device I have set in the wharf there, and so record the hours of high and low tide. My friend, Albert Jansen, a man of parts who built the two windmills beyond the Fort, makes the same observations at his jetty on Staaten Eylandt. These, together with the speed of the wind and the lunar calendar, we compare when Albert comes to my door by the Heere Gracht.

I do more. Each day, if not abroad on business, I write the temperature of the air at first light and then again when the sun is at its highest. These observations I have written in the form of a table each year since my arrival. I am the first man ever to make record of the climate of Manatus Eylandt, its excesses and variations. This precedence pleases me as a toy does a child, though I know it is vanity. The wildmen of this place plant their corn and harvest it without knowledge of recorded time or the months of the year. Neither do they talk of distance as we mark it out along the ground. I have seen them observe me take my measurements, but they do not linger long in looking, saying that everything needful is shown to them by nature.

About The Author

Photograph by Armin Wiesheit

Stella Tillyard is a British novelist and historian. She was educated at Oxford and Harvard Universities and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Her bestselling book Aristocrats was made into a miniseries for BBC1/Masterpiece Theatre, and sold to over twenty countries. Winner of the Meilleur Livre Etranger, the Longman-History Today Prize, and the Fawcett Prize, Tillyard has taught at Harvard University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at Queen Mary, London. She is currently a Visiting Professor in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, University of London. Her latest novel is Call Upon the Water (published in the UK under the title The Great Level).

Why We Love It

“An unusual love story that spans decades in 17th century England, Manhattan, and Virginia…This is a book about men and women and man vs. nature. It’s psychologically complex and fascinating from a historical perspective.” —Trish T., VP, Executive Editor, on Call Upon the Water

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (December 8, 2020)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982120979

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

Tillyard is a lovely writer....she can take your breath away."

– The New York Times Book Review

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images