Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hild by Nicola Griffith

Nicola Griffith's Hild completely immersed me in the world of 7th-century Britain. The novel revolves around the early years of an extraordinary historical figure, Saint Hilda of Whitby.

"In a time of warlords and kings, when might was right, she began as the second daughter of a homeless widow, probably without much in the way of material resources and certainly in an illiterate culture, and ended up a powerful adviser to statesmen-kings and teacher of five bishops." (Author's note at the end of Hild.)

"Quiet mouth, bright mind." Before she was 8 years old, Hild was taught to make the most of her natural ability to see patterns in everything: the movements of birds, the ripening of grain, the types of gifts given as tribute, and the looks passed between people.

While Hild is paying attention, readers get to know characteristics of daily life, the power politics, and the natural environment of her time. It all feels so real: the muddy clothing; the smell of horse that clings to riders; a squabble between Hild and her older sister Hereswith about how tight the threads should be in their weaving project. The reverence shown to detailing the physical world through the five senses is what make this such an immersive experience. Griffith adds enchantment to the most unpretentious activities, like butter-making:

"While Hereswith wiped her arm and pinned her sleeves back on, Hild fetched a lump of grey salt for Mildburh and mortar and pestle to crush it in. She loved the gritty crunch and thump under her hand. It sounded like a cat eating a bird."

It doesn't contain unexplained magic, yet Hild has much in common with high fantasy. There's a young woman fulfilling a prophecy; a map; pre-industrial technology; complex dynamics of politics and religion; tricky names sorted in a genealogy chart; and lots of strange words explained in a glossary at the end. Except Griffith has used real words from the languages spoken at the time.

An example from the glossary is the Old English "Gemaecce (yeh-MATCH-eh): formal female friendship or partnership; one of a pair." Jane Yolen, in the fantasy Sister Light, Sister Dark, and Lisa See in the historical novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, also explored the practice of formalized bonds between women.
Ammonite, called snakestone in Hild

While this isn't a lesbian novel, I did appreciate the significant bisexual content. I also like the way Griffith quietly inserted a reference to her very first novel, Ammonite (1992), by having Begu gift her gemaecce Hild with one of these fossils.

Readalikes: The Eagle and the Raven (Pauline Gedge); Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel); The Skystone (Jack Whyte); The Last Light of the Sun (Guy Gavriel Kay); Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley); and Kristin Lavransdatter (Sigrid Undset).

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