Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith
Hild is a complex, beautiful weave of words: a novel which threads life into a distant past, revealing it to be at once distant and strange while at the same time hauntingly recognisable. For as the author Nicola Griffith states in her afterword: “While people in Hild’s time may have understood their world a little differently from how we understand ours, they were still people – as human as we are. Their dreams, fears, political machinations, fights, loves and hesitations were shaped by circumstance and temperament.”
It is perhaps the story’s bidirectional dynamic which fuelled my fascination. Here are people who are motivated by power, by perceptions of who is ‘kin’ and who is ‘other’ – we could easily find points of comparison between this world view and our own modern conceptions of national identity. Yet at the same time, Griffith portrays the British Isles at a period of massive upheaval: both religious and political. And these are changes on an almost seismic level which will completely alter the cultural fabric of these islands.
At one point, Hild presents the Irish Priest Fursey with a copy of the psalms and he describes it as a ‘palimpsest’. I take this to be the best analogy for the Britain that Griffith represents – a territory which has been staked out, re-imagined and rewritten by so many groups of people – Roman, Celtic and Anglisc, the future up for grabs and the present constantly shifting beneath their feet. It was this aspect of the book which particularly engaged me: the realisation of just how complex and volatile Hild’s world was. The best writers of historical fiction help us to read history from back to front – to understand the contingencies and accidents which got us where we are today. And this is exactly what Hild does.
Hild herself is a figure of great ambiguity, and the disparate narratives of this story all seem to coalesce in her person as the arch weaver, the perceiver of patterns. Her father Hereric is destined to be king, but is poisoned when Hild is a child. Together with her mother and sister she is taken into the household of king Edwin, her Uncle, and learns to navigate the turbulent and dangerous waters of the Deiran court from an early age. She is at once trusted seer to the king, and mistrusted ‘hægtes’ or witch, as comfortable amongst the British speaking wealhs as amongst the Anglisc speaking nobility. She makes the transition from Paganism to Christianity, she loves both men and women. She is, in short, the ultimate ‘passing’ character, a woman who wields a masculine form of power and who lives by her wits.
Hild is a book which confirms – in my mind – that we are living through a golden age of historical fiction: that the genre is challenging our concepts of the past and our relationship with it in ways that conventional historiography never can. It’s a demanding read, but I closed it with the feeling that I would have loved to linger just a while longer in Hild’s complex, brutal, beautiful world.