I gave this book 5 stars

This is an historical novel about the early life of Hild who became St Hilda of Whitby.   It begins with Hild as a three year old who is groomed by her mother to be the ‘light of the world’; a seer to her uncle, Edward king, thus keeping the family safe in a dangerous time of social politics in the 7th C.  As she grows Hild spends her time watching and listening; to nature, the land, ordinary people, and those in court, growing in knowledge and wisdom to advise Edward king.  In a time when pagan gods and Celtic Christians are being replaced with new Christians from Rome, Hild has the foresight to embrace change without losing her own countenance.  Through battles, unrest, cold winters, and dry summers, she entwines her life with the loyal men of the king and with the people of wić’s and vills  (towns and settlements) applying both brutal force and compassion in fighting and, care and fairness to people of the land.

Keep a quiet mouth and a bright mind” is a lesson that she is given; this is such a powerful line and one that illustrates all that Hild becomes.  I love the way the Nicola Griffith uses the language of a bright three year old to describe the life around her which grows in complexity as she ages.  There are so many beautifully written lines that Griffiths enthrals you with:  The three year old rejecting the suggestion she might be frightened, with the thought ‘She was three; she had her own shoes’.  In the story Hild is a ‘pattern maker’ for the cloth that the women weave, and with the same skill she gives Hild, Griffiths weaves the story and histories in her writing.

I enjoyed reading this book slowly, getting a real sense of how society worked in the 7thC .  At first I struggled to read the strange names and words of a language that is so unfamiliar, but this enhances the experience of imagining the 7thC and the book would be poorer without it.  The use of unfamiliar words become part of the world unfolding, so that an understanding of their meaning becomes clearer, and with the glossary at the end of the book all is revealed.   I think you absorb this story so that it becomes familiar.

I love the way Griffiths paints a picture setting the scene capturing the essence of the land and life of the people.   The words paint the feeling of an event so the reader can ‘know inside’ what is happening and being said rather than a simple description.  Lines such as – She liked time at the edge of things – the edge of the crowd, the edge of the pool, the edge of the wood – where all must pass but none quite belonged. 

This is a story that is told by offering a feeling and an experience of it in your mind, it  brings a history to life in a natural way, less like a novel more like sitting and hearing an account of a time long gone.

Kindle edition

ISBN 9780349134222

Publisher: Blackfriars (10 April 2014)

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