Ronald Knox, found awake aged four by a nanny, was asked what he was thinking about, and he replied ‘the past’. I thought of this when reading Hunters in the Snow, since the author is so young, and the time-scale of the book so long. This is a truly dazzling first novel. Every paragraph bristles with cleverness and yet it is a warm-hearted book, at times overpoweringly moving.
Its theme is nothing less than the past, and how we view it, and how it affects us. The framework of the story is the young narrator’s relationship with a reclusive, unhappily married grandfather, who is a professional historian. The substance of it, however, is the way that every event in the past has in some way led up to the present. ‘Actual events,’ said Carlyle, ‘are nowise so simply related to each other as parent and offspring are, and every single event is the offspring not of one, but of all other events.’
The grandfather’s rigour in his recovery of the past has a simple and personal aim: he wants to allow the men and women of the past to return to us. The woman telling the story connects with these links with the past, as she revisits them through her grand-father’s historical notes, and through the memories of his taking her on expeditions: to the battlefield of Towton (1471), where as many were slain as on the first day of the Somme (with 28,000 casualties, it was the bloodiest battle ever fought in Britain); or to York Minster, where, atheist as he was, her grandfather worked as a volunteer guide.
There are some good meditations on the minster being struck by lightning after the consecration there of Bishop David Jenkins. For Jenkins — a heretic in the eyes of many — had made searching and pertinent observations about the way in which we view history, and about whether the Bible can be viewed as historical.
The guiding spirit of the book is Herodotus, her grandfather’s constant reading. The father of Greek history travelled hither and yon to collect his materials. To this extent he was like a modern historian engaged upon research. On the other hand, he was irresistibly drawn to good stories (as is Hildyard), which is why his History has endured for 2,500 years.
Hildyard cunningly explores this dichotomy — telling a good yarn, and trying to separate this need from the need to get at the facts — with superb meditations on three mysterious historical subjects, subjects which have become encrusted with speculation and legend. These are the autobiography of the escaped slave Olaudah Equiano; the travels of Peter the Great when disguised as a jobbing shipwright and carpenter; and the sinking of the Hampshire off the Old Man of Hoy in 1916, with the loss of, among others, Lord Kitchener.
Comparisons will be made between Hildyard’s work and that of W.G. Sebald. She nods in homage to the great German, partly by the technique of illustrating her text with some smudgy black and white photographs, and partly by weaving her personal journeys around England with meditations upon history. But although there is a debt to Sebald, and an acknowledged debt to the Virginia Woolf of The Death of a Moth, this is a formidably original book. I had no sooner finished it than I started to read it again. It has some of the qualities of Herodotus, being studded with stories, or one of those compendium books, such as Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, in which a whole jumble of assembled information, quotation, story and illusion are interconnected.
Above all this is a passionate book. One of the things about which it is passionate is the soil of Yorkshire, the farm where her grand-father lived so unhappily with Liv, his wife. The narrator finds out about the past from Jimmy, the grandfather. But it is from Liv that she learns to shoot, to identify species, to watch a cow calve, to appreciate the seasons. These are lyrically, beautifully brought to life. This book is not just a promising first effort by a bright young writer. It is a considerable work of literature.
There are some weird slips. Surely it can’t be the case that there was a race known as the ‘English’ in the days of Herodotus? And on p. 63, when she states that the church at Daventry was ‘shut up for Lent’ when Edward IV visited it (‘there were squares of black cloth hanging over the pictures’) — she presumably means it was Passiontide and the images were all veiled. Black is unusual as a colour for this — in the Middle Ages, the veils would have been unbleached linen, adorned with instruments of the Passion.
But these are tiny niggles. The book has a truly wonderful ending, in which the heroine discovers a tiny bit of paper upon which the old man, now dead, has written down the geological epochs.
Pliocene, which meant more new; Pleistocene which meant most new; Holocene, which meant the new whole. The last age, which has yet wholeheartedly to be endorsed by the geological community, means new and human, Anthropocene.
So, from the very earliest shaping of the planet, to the kaleidoscope of a woman’s consciousness in the 21st century, moments of time are captured and celebrated, as only the art of history can do.
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