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I ended up reading rather less on holiday than I normally do, which I suppose isn't entirely surprising as mostly after spending the day tramping up hill and down dale by the evening I wasn't fit for much more than watching something undemanding on TV before falling asleep at 9pm, even we hadn't staying in B&Bs where there wasn't anywhere to sit but on the bed(s), which invariably led to lying down on the bed(s), which in turn led to sleep rather than reading; so in the end I only managed to finish the book I'd been reading before we left and read one other.

I wanted to like Nicola Griffith's Hild a lot more than I actually did. It had some brilliant moments and some clever ideas; I loved the sense of place I got from the writing, and Griffith's depiction of seventh-century Britain as a complicated melting-pot of cultures and races: Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Britons, Franks; pagans, Celto-British Christians, Roman Christians, all living, working, trading and fighting in a shifting web of alliances which felt much more real and vivid than the segregated world Rosemary Sutcliff imagines in Dawn Wind, set about fifty years earlier. I also loved the themes of spinning and weaving that run through the book, both as literal activities carried out by the novel's female characters (the ubiquity of spindle whorls at every museum I've visited lately only goes to demonstrate just how important the production of cloth was in pre-industrial societies) and as metaphors for the interconnections between the various kingdoms of Britain and the pattern of history being formed between them. I appreciated the way Griffiths was obviously trying to create a women's history in the gaps of the official records, a story of influences and intrigues rather than power and battles, and I liked that novel's emphasis on trade as the main driver of its history, rather than battles (for a long time I had a very 1066 And All That view of history as being about battles and kings and thought trade was boring, but in recent years I've come to realise that it's actually utterly fascinating, and also where the real story lies). And because I was walking through Northumberland the Northumbrian setting felt appropriate (even if I'm pretty sure that when Griffith talks about people riding along "the Redcrests' Wall" she actually means they were riding along the Stanegate, which is a couple of miles south of the Wall itself and much more suited for riding, and which goes through Corbridge and Haltwhistle which she name-checks).

Despite all this, I didn't find the plot terribly gripping; it's very slow-moving, with a string of episodes from Hild's early life interspersed with reports of events that Hild isn't actually present at. I was surprised to discover that the book's 560 pages barely get Hild to adult life; I was expecting the novel to cover her whole life, but in fact it appears that there will be at least one sequel. More than this, though, despite the thoroughly-researched historical background, I increasingly found myself feeling that, particularly in matters of personal relationships, the characters behaved with a very modern sensibility that didn't really ring true to me. Obviously, records of the time are limited and deal more with politics than personal lives, so there's a lot of scope for authorial imagination, but while it seems quite plausible that women would have had bawdy conversations among themselves the default assumption that sex would be pleasurable and the sheer amount of extramarital sex going on seemed much too modern, while the suggestion that any unwanted pregnancy could be easily dealt with by taking the right herbs struck me as downright irresponsible in an age where access to abortion is still far from universal. I was also not particularly happy with Griffiths's decision to invent a formal partnership structure between women for which there is absolutely no historical evidence and make this central to the Anglo-Saxon society she depicts; I don't think that the absence of evidence that something didn't happen is sufficient grounds for inlcluding it in a historical novel when it's something that significant. I suspect I might have been more comfortable with Hild if it was a work of historical fantasy, but as historical fiction it didn't really work for me, and I don't intend to read the sequel.

After finishing Hild, I wanted something light and entertaining and suitable for a walking holiday. John Buchan seemed to fit the bill perfectly, so I read Castle Gay, the second Dickson McCunn novel and one I hadn't read before. I liked it a lot; the McCunn novels are gentler and less full of danger and intrigue than the Richard Hannay books, and the two of the three I've read so far both start with their heroes embarking on walking holidays, which seemed appropriate. This was a mainly peril-free caper with some delightful descriptions of walking in south-west Scotland (not too far from where I was myself, just across the Solway Firth), some entertaining commentary on the role of the Press in British society (maybe things haven't actually changed that much in 80 years) and a plot about a timid, isolated rich man being redeemed by contact with nature which was rather reminiscent of a Chalet School book. All in all, great fun from start to finish.


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September 2017

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