Reading: Nicola Griffith — Hild

This came close to being the best book I’ve ever read. Almost, almost the equal of Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn (yes, I know, an odd choice for my most beloved work of fiction), and when I compare Nicola Griffith’s Hild with other novels I have read, it sits up there with such pieces of brilliance as Excession, Ancillary Justice, and other phenomenal works from the likes of Charles Stross, and China Miéville. I really wasn’t expecting to read anything after Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (which just won the Hugo Award) that was going to come anywhere near toppling that as my book of the year, but, well, they’re going to have to share that.

Hild was my book for Vienna—I’ve been reading it for a couple of weeks, usually falling asleep under it, which results in nose damage. It’s big, over 500 pages, and if I could have two book covers as posters on my wall, one would be Ancillary Justice and the other Hild. It also arrived at a particularly good moment, when I’ve been introducing myself to mediæval European history (particularly of the Germanic and northern European varieties), reading about women, and African/Arabic/Asian people in Europe during that time. Hild has given me enough of an understanding—admittedly of a very particular place and time—and passion to begin seriously reading on this subject in the way say, Deleuze and Guattari’s 1000 Plateaus led to almost twenty years of reading on China and Central Asia. Neal Stephenson—whose praises for Hild are on the back cover—is a second example of a work of fiction that’s had a massive influence on what fields I study. As much as I no longer find him interesting, his Baroque Cycle was pivotal in introducing me to late-17th and early-18th century Europe, to Leibniz, the Age of Reason, Late Baroque, Sophia Charlotte, and gave me a much better feeling for the era than most books of history have.

The story, briefly, is that of the person who became Saint Hilda of Whitby, who lived from around 614-680 in what is now England. Very little is known of her early life until her baptism at age 33, and it is this unknown life that Griffith creates in Hild. In doing so, it becomes simultaneously a research of mediæval life at the time Christianity became the dominant religion on the islands. The depth of research into language, culture, farming, materials manufacture, relationships (public, private; formal, and informal), travel, food, fighting and war is alone enough to make me regard this as somewhere between fiction and historical non-fiction, and it’s the attention to the diversity of people (not all people in Europe then had pale skin), and sexuality that for me makes this an especially remarkable book.

As well, to read a work of history from the perspective of a woman (for example like Susan Mann’s works on pre-modern China) is vanishingly rare when the story is one of war, conquest, kings and nobility. Hild sits close to fantasy, indeed it could be a work of that genre, and it’s all the more unlikely for such a story to be told from a women’s perspective. In the more usual stories, it is men doing heroic things, bleeding, drinking, fighting, generally stomping around doing Important Things, while the women, servants, the people who put the food and drink on the table, who clean up after the heroes, remain marginalised and in the shadows, more often than not nameless and reduced to performing actions: filling the drinks, being raped after battle. Hild slips between these worlds: born of royalty, yet at home in the fields and woods, working in the kitchen or weaving, observing and participating in both. This alone is enough to make Hild a glorious read, a release from not only those heroic male fantasy fiction or history works, but also from those that merely change the gender of the protagonist from he to she and otherwise leave the remainder untouched.

So, yes, clearly I loved this book and I’m overjoyed Griffith is writing a second novel on Hild, and for much of it I seriously thought I’d found a work even better than Feersum Endjinn. Part of this was by Griffith’s choices not to generate narrative or force open new plot directions by the usual habit of killing someone close to the main character, and I can’t describe the feeling of having her risk the main protagonists’ lives yet not casually slaughter them for the sake of tragedy. Which is not to say they led unbelievably blessed existences when all those around were ground into blood and bone—there were deaths and maimings aplenty.

The ending though, after 500 pages of twists, machinations, years of her life, perhaps Griffith wasn’t sure where to finish. It’s not a resolution as such, or even fundamentally a new stage in her life—though Hild getting married to her half-brother is a significant event—in comparison to other large narrative arcs throughout the book. It was just slightly unsatisfactory for me, possibly because it wasn’t the standard ending where everything is finished and accounted for, which gives an unverbalised sense of satisfaction and wholeness. Nonetheless, definitely one of my books of the year—one of my books of all time—shall be reading again very soon, am pestering friends to read it and bookshops to have it on their tables. If you want to experience just how profound works of science-fiction and fantasy can be, there are only two books you need to read this year: Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Nicola Griffith’s Hild.