6 December, 2022

LitStack Rec: A House For Mr Biswas & Hild

Hild by Nicola Griffith

Seventh century Britain: a time when men’s ambitions were larger than their means, when life was simple and brutal. Beauty rarely lasted.  Illiterate kings warred, scheming religions undermined each other, people survived and died. This was before chivalry, before knights in shining armor, before courtly love.

This historical novel is the fictionalization of the life of Hilda of Whitby, born in 614. Hild is the daughter of tenuous royalty, but her father dies of poison when she is still very young, leaving her mother to keep the family relevant through wit and wile. A keenly intelligent, observant child, Hild is able to watch the world around her and see the patterns that unfold, both rural and courtly. When Hild’s uncle Edwin is triumphant in the field and positions himself to become overlord of their world, her mother uses her daughter’s uncanny ability to declare her a foreteller and scryer of omens. Soon, Hild is sitting at the right hand of a superstitious, uncertain ruler – quiet, rarely speaking, with a disconcerting gaze that brings both wonder and fear:  the king’s seer.  She is seven years old.

That is also a novel about a woman’s world, experienced by a girl who must think with not just the mind of a woman, but a woman at the midst of upheaval and uncertainty, who must use what she sees to protect herself and those she loves. (Hild remembered her mother’s words exactly – the light of the world must remember everything. She repeated them proudly. “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.”) With the machinations of a few key players around her, she walks the fine line between being indispensible and being a pawn of forces beyond her control.

And we glimpse Britain as it was, when territories were in flux and trade was regionalized, specialized, based on the resources at hand: this place brewed the best mead, that one raised sheep whose wool was superior in fiber, another, at a confluence of waterways, could become a new trading center. The interplay of survival against a king’s tithe, marred by the new religion of the Christ folk who demanded baptism despite belief, where even royal children were vulnerable to disease and politics, and loyalties were demanded yet not to be trusted, where slaves and newcomers and farmers and the privileged all ebbed and flowed in an ever moving transition of scrabbled influence and disregard. Where strength was displayed through intricate riches and spectacle, but those hidden away were often the most secure.

We see creameries and weaving huts, war bans and children’s play.  We witness the pull of ancestry and old gods, and the brashness of foreign gods and influence, and we get glimpses into the first rumblings of “new” thoughts and processes that would centuries later overthrow the ways of countless ages. Take, for example, this simple interchange between Hild and another woman:

“Why did you think I was an aelf?”

Gode, fingering the dense weave, said, “Because you’re taller than the world.  Because I watched you sit and open a spell.”

Hild hitched herself up on her elbow. “A spell?”

“You opened it and it leapt into you and possessed you. You didn’t move for an age.”

“Oh.  No.  That’s a letter.  A message.  Words from someone far away.”

Gode nodded.  “Magic.”

“No.”  But it was magic, in a way.

Think of it. To someone unschooled, would it not seem like magic to watch one unfold a scroll and be taken elsewhere in thought? In another passage, young Hild and her playmate Cian are fascinated with how water refracts and bends submerged images. They stick their arms into a quiet pond and believe that in the water, their arms are magically broken, and then made whole again when they pull them back out. To us, this is ignorance, but to them, it is a kind of water magic, with sprites lingering nearby to make mischief. And indeed, their lack of understanding does make it magical, in that even in this wonderment they are becoming aware.

There is little romance here; there is beauty and finery, and exquisite skill and workmanship, but so much is vicious and visceral. Graciousness is only a breath away from savagery. Affection and desire are expected yet cutting and disposable. There is a brutality to life, but it is all there is and therefore precious and fought for. And remarkable.

Hild moves somewhat slowly, at the pace at which life was forced to move in the seventh century. We see what shapes Hild, and we marvel at that which she holds inside herself, that which is unique and wholly realized in her own understanding of who she is. Yet not everything that transpires in the novel is clear, to us or to Hild, which makes her ability to see the patterns that shape her future even more compelling, for we (with all our advancements) cannot come close to seeing such things for ourselves. So we watch her from our far distance, and hope she can take the omens she sees and use them first, for her advantage, and second, for their truth.

This is an amazing book, of a little known time, yet a time that shaped so much of the world that we know today. Well worth a hearty recommendation.

— Sharon Browning