Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Book review : Hild / Nicola Griffith

5 out of 5 stars

I am a sucker for historical fiction—I love reading novels set in the past.  And the less published evidence there is about the society in question, the better I like it.  For example, I adore King Arthur mythology and one of my favourite series ever is that by Mary Stewart (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills and The Last Enchantment).  I’m also very fond of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Basically, bring on the archeological research and the mythology and let’s not let the facts stand too firmly in the way of a good, romantic story (by which I mean a historic tale, not necessarily a love story).

Hild, by Nicola Griffith, qualifies as a superior entry in this category for me.  Set in medieval northern England, it is the story of the woman who eventually becomes St. Hilda of Whitby, a powerful female voice in a male dominated world.  The author shares in her afterword that there is very little in written records about Hilda—Griffith absorbed the contemporary documents & tales plus publications about the archaeological research and set about to create this world in a novel.  The child, Hild, is introduced to the mix and then we watch what happens.

Magic is what happens.  I forgot that I was reading—instead, I was living along with the young Hild, learning how to be politically careful and quiet, watching the natural world, absorbing information without others being aware, cultivating sources of gossip and news;  all the talents that she will require to be the King’s seer.  

The attention to the natural world is extraordinary.  Being a bird watcher myself, I loved all the references to British birds, the chiffchaffs, the ravens and the shrikes (butcher-birds).  I enjoyed young Hild’s predilection for climbing trees and making her observations from on high.  Hedgehogs and hares, deer and horses, Griffith pays attention to all the animals in the vicinity.
I also appreciated the depiction of a young woman of an important family growing into her sexuality—what is allowed, what is not, how her impulses are dealt with—all very naturally and sympathetically portrayed.  A female author makes a big difference in this regard—male sexuality is also written realistically, in my opinion, and the differences between the two genders are dealt with matter-of-factly.  

If there are any drawbacks, they are some of the character names—difficult for those of us who are unfamiliar with Celtic or Old English pronunciation.  There are also a few scattered words of terminology given only in Old English, which one must divine the meaning of through context.  Not overly difficult, but sometimes a trifle annoying.  Still these issues did not detract from the lustre of the tale.

If you have any interest at all in historical fiction, the Middle Ages in Britain, the change from pagan religions to Christianity, the early church in Britain, the role of women in medieval times, etc., READ THIS BOOK.  It is well worth your while.

I understand from the afterword that there is a second book in the works.  I can hardly wait.  This one will be going to the nursing home with me (if I still have all my marbles) because it is a gorgeous read and I look forward to re-reading it repeatedly in the future.

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