Thursday, October 12, 2023

Review: Menewood by Nicola Griffith

 A vividly beautiful story rooted in nature and landscape and a woman who uses it as her lens through which to view the world.

And absolutely stunning cover art by Anna and Elena Balbusso

Hild was unexpected and beautiful. If you haven't read it, it's a fictionalised telling of the early life of Hild(a) of Whitby - a woman born in the 7th century CE to a Deiran royal household (an early British kingdom based in the north-east, around modern York) who went from pagan to Christian to abbess to sainthood, and was the founder of the monastery at Whitby, where the Synod of Whitby (which codified the British approach to the date of Easter, and their alignment with the Roman rather than Celtic churches) was held. Hild details her young life in the royal court of her uncle Edwin, King of Northumbria, and her struggle to find a place there. It casts her as someone particularly capable of reading into the patterns she observes in the world, whether they be in nature or in the actions of people, and who, prompted by her mother, uses this ability to be viewed as a quasi-mystical seer, helping guide the king's actions through a tumultuous period of history, both politically and religiously.

Some of Hild's impact is simply through how unexpected it is - there is a breathtaking level of immersion into the world of 7th century Northumbria, and into the worldview of a particularly astute and thoughtful girl who might live in it. It's a novel you leave somewhat dazed and dazzled, suffering from the whiplash of returning to modernity after a viewpoint so seamlessly portrayed and inhabited. And that can be a difficult thing to follow. The bar has been set high, the setting, the writing, the visuals and immersion are all known, and there's always a risk that, when known, they become that much less impressive.

Luckily, it's been written by Nicola Griffith, and so she's not only avoided this problem entirely, but somehow managed to deliver an even more stunning sequel to an already stunning book.

Menewood is a book about many things - womanhood, motherhood, the price of power, living in an everchanging world, survival, will, and simply the world of 7th century Northumbria. It encompasses a huge portion of life, of a whole worldview of a person, and manages to do so seamlessly, artfully and deftly at every single turn. It takes you through intensely traumatic events, both personal and political, and makes you view them as a human would, in all their detail and cost and chaos, in all the things someone would need to survive them, and what that survival would demand. The story is humanly told, and manages to make comprehensible and engaging a fairly complex and less-known piece of history, in a way that feels genuinely readable, without sacrificing that complexity or the realities of the world for the sake of modern readership.

Which is to say the plot, however predictably based in real historical events, nevertheless manages to suck you in, and remains just as great as its predecessor.

However, the plot is not what I want to talk about, when I think about what makes this book stand out for me, good as it is. There are four strands of the weave I think really demonstrate what a thoroughly skilfully told novel this is, and why it stands out amongst its peers, and it's those I want to highlight instead.

Firstly, and most prominently throughout the story - the worldbuilding.

A thing you quite often see in less well-told historical fiction is the author's need to show off that they know something that doesn't really fit into the story, but it's a neat fact that just had to be crammed in somehow, because they did all this research and so it needs to be put on the page. And then that multiplied across the story, until you are constantly being elbow-nudged about yes, this is a historical work. Griffith manages the opposite of that. 

When you pause to think, to examine a phrase even, you realise just how much work, how much research, how much thinking has gone into crafting 7th century Northumbria in a way the reader can truly be immersed in. On examination, it's there to see. But in the moment of reading, it is invisible, or subtle, or offhand. It's never the focus, but it is absolutely the lens, and when you begin to realise just how much there is of it, you realise what a marvel of a book this is.

Offhand remarks are icebergs of worldbuilding:

Every man in the hall wept openly; most of the women were dry-eyed.

This is a cultural context where the act of showing emotion is read and performed differently than in modern Britain. It's a single line, and the story moves on, but it leaves us with a little nugget of information, and doesn't feel the need to explain it to us. The reader is trusted to draw their conclusions, to think about how a world might look different when this is true, compared to our own.

Then, to take a more overt example - the way Griffith incorporates period language (or period-seeming language) into not just the dialogue, but the text itself. The months are given unfamiliar names - like Hrethmonath - but because the descriptions of the world are always rooted in the physical, in the constant turning of the seasons and the work they demand, it is never unclear when in the year each event takes place. But it stretches deeper than this - plants, animals, places, people, so many things in the world take on names that embed them into setting, and doubly so when Griffith consciously evokes the multilinguality of 7th century Britain. Hild herself speaks several languages, and how she names certain things, and in which tongue, is a subtle insight into how the sociocultural groups of her world interact with it and each other. And of course, which language she chooses to speak, and to whom. There is a constant fluidity to Hild's world, a need to shift modes of thought and communication to suit her environment in a way that many modern Anglophones are quite unfamiliar with, and it is such a good grounding for the realities of the setting. She may speak Anglisc to her uncle, and to his court, and when she wishes to appear formal and full of power, but then she'll shift to British to speak to her family, or when she thinks about a bird in the sky, how its flight tells her the frost will come early this year.

Which leads us on to our second strand - Hild's gaze, and the natural world that shapes and informs it at every turn, and the language used to describe it all so vividly.

As a modern, metropolitan reader, my connection with the natural world is tenuous at best. I can name wildflowers and trees, I am happy walking in a forest along clear trails, and I enjoy being in boats and seeing wildlife. I even like camping. But that's... the extent of it. I can enjoy it, but my knowledge of the natural world around me is superficial at best, and limited by the constraints the modern world imposes on the natural.

Hild, by contrast, is written as someone who not only lives in a world much closer to the natural than the one I see, but reads it as easily as living in it. Like so:

The rain started at Beal, and the oaks on either bank stood bare and mournful. The scent of spring dirt struck a chord and, just like that, between one bend of the river and another, she was inside the scents and sounds of home. Elmet, where she was born and where she belonged. This was the heart of home, the place that sang to her in her dreams, where she could name the dirt between her fingers, greet the give of grass under her feet, know the flirr and flit of feathers between the trees. But surrounding the lift in her heart, holding in check the rising joy under her breastbone, she felt watchful. There were no bright cuts of recent pruning. On an inside curve of the river a bittern, nesting in a reed bed, boomed at them. She had never seen a bittern so close to this usually busy stretch of river. And the river itself ran very clear.

At so many points in the story, the world turns on her familiarity with the details that seem small to us but are all part of the pattern for her - a bird out of place, a river running clean, trees unpruned. Hild is meant to be remarkable in her affinity for finding these patterns, it is part of her character, but the way Griffith weaves it into the text makes it so believable, so bounded by the life her character would have led that of course someone like Hild could be like this. It's not miraculous, except in how it is used, filtered through Hild's intelligence and thoughtfulness into something sharp and useful. It is simply someone accustomed to a different world and its rhythms, attuned to it, and reading it.

But even beyond that, the way she reads it, constantly imbued with admiration, with beauty and crystal clarity, makes it an incredibly immersive world - and worldview - to inhabit. Griffith draws on the mores of old English poetry in her use of alliteration and repetition, but gives it all a beauty apparent to the modern reader. There are so many charming phrases littered through the book that I felt the need to jot down while reading - gleaming and glittering in the glorious gear of war - and when these are turned to nature, Hild's dearest love that underpins all, and paired with a deft ear for the onomatopeia of wild things, they become almost holy, and wholly present for the reader.

Don't let this fool you into thinking it's a tranquil, pastoral book, though. Just like its predecessor, Menewood is a story that turns on the inherent chaos and instability of the world in which Hild lives. At the time - and this is something Griffith takes great pains to make plain in Menewood particularly - so much of the stability of the world was invested in the king. Not the institute of kingship, not the apparatus of governance, but a single man and his personal relationship with power and those around him. When he dies, the world is tipped to chaos and a new king must make it all anew - or not. Menewood is, in part, a story of the fragility of that world, and the awareness of those who live in it of how precarious it all can be. And this is the third part of what the book does so well - it makes you truly see this, without ever bludgeoning you over the head with it. Griffith eschews long tracts of exposition, but the information comes through all the same. We see the growing hunger of those outside and apart from the throne of Edwin king, we see Hild's growing awareness of what might come, of what she might prevent, and what suffering it might bring her. She lives in a world poised on the edge of the precipice, and she must seek to have those she loves survive it, even if she cannot stop it.

But - and this is the fourth part, and perhaps the most subtle but satisfying - it's also a book full of awareness of change that's coming, that will wipe away much of that chaos. Underpinning all of the rest of the book - quietly, constantly - is the knowledge of the waxing and waning of religious change coming to Hild and her people, and all that the growth of Christianity brings with it. Because for Hild, it brings writing. It brings agreements of the "boc" - things written down that endure beyond the rise and fall of one man as king, so long as the church survives to hold men to them. We, the reader, know how the story ultimately ends. Christianity adopted, Hild an abbess. This is history. But Griffith manages to make that inevitabilty dynamic nonetheless, makes it feel less than certain. And the way she showcases the different ways the people in that world approached and related to their faith or faiths, what it meant to them, what it meant to kings, what it meant to politics, is as clever as it is subtle, integrated as it is with the far more overt parts of the story. People convert, but they don't always understand. Sometimes they're forced. Sometimes they shift back to their old religion. Their faith may tie them together with allies, or they may be enemies regardless of it. And Griffith makes us truly see that, truly be situated in a world of such changing forces on all sides, but where just ahead, on the horizon, visible to someone with a mind for pattern and prediction like Hild, we see too the growing spectre of the sort of change that changes everything.

And part of that is our proximity to Hild's own faith, which is an interesting mix of the devout and the pragmatic. It's a tragedy of history that most people see people in the past as either stupid or mystical geniuses, but never in between, as people capable of the same sort of thought (and lack thereof) as we are now. But in Hild, in her faith, we see someone grappling with such a relatable struggle, in an alien context, and Griffith has managed to find that perfect medium of humanity without denying its historical context.

Menewood is a fantastic sequel to Hild. It's rare for a second book in a trilogy to eclipse the first, or even equal it, but it feels like Griffith has done just that here. It's a novel full of paradox - present, relatable humanity against a true immersion in a historical context; a lens of the natural world used to make plain the most human of problems; an intimate character portrait and a wideview lens on the politics of a whole kingdom - but it never falters, drawing it all together into a seamless whole with an ease and grace that belies how truly deep it feels, when you pause to scratch the surface. It is a book about a strange, singular woman, and her view on the world around her, and it is a marvel.


The Math

Highlights: beautiful language, amazing historical worldbuilding, a character you cannot help but love to inhabit

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

Reference: Nicola Griffith, Menewood, [Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea