Hild – Nicola Griffith

It’s magical to pick up a book and from the first paragraphs be confronted with the sure knowledge that you have found something truly special.  Hild, by Nicola Griffith is just such a novel, and it’s probably my book of the year so far.  It gets its paperback release on 1 October 2015 (published by Little, Brown and kindly provided by NetGalley) and I strongly recommend looking it out.  I was enthralled from the very first, lush paragraphs.

In Hild, Griffith gives us a fictionalised early history of the woman who becomes Saint Hilda of Whitby.  We know very little about Saint Hilda.  The historical record is bare.  All Bede (the great chronicler of Anglo-Saxon Britain) tells us is that she was the second daughter of an assassinated king, was baptised at 13 and founds the monastic community at Whitby at the age of 33.  The rest of her life is a mystery.  Griffith takes these fragments and asks what kind of a woman must Hild have been?  How did she survive the assassination of her father and rise to a position of power in Anglo-Saxon Britain, at the heart of the Golden Age of the kingdom of Northumbria?  How did she become an advisor to kings and bishops, and the person who shaped English Christianity?

Griffith’s Hild is a portrait of soft power and the role of women in a regimented and stratified society.  As the king’s seer, Hild is able to transcend gender roles.  She is groomed by her mother into that role, her mother desperate to carve her out a niche of safety in a world where the place of women is fragile and dependent on the luck and indulgence of men.  But Hild’s shrewd analysis of the geo-politics of post- Romano-British society has to be dressed up in the language of omens and portents in order to be taken seriously.  Ultimately she cannot help but be constrained by her sex and the expectations of her society.

Rarely have I come across a novel so firmly rooted in time and place.  Nicola Griffith grew up in the north-east of England, and Hild is a love song to the landscape and its changing seasons.  They are a constant presence in the book.  We see the little-understood crumbling remains of Roman Britain, Anglisc invaders living in the ruins of murals and mosaics and using Roman roads.  We see the changing seasons and the material culture of Dark Ages Britain.  Webs of trade and political relationships lie at the root of everything.  Griffith’s descriptions are vivid and sumptuous.

But Hild is also Griffith’s manifesto for filling the gaps in our history relating to the position and role of women.  (She’s written a fantastic essay for the LA Review of Books on this very subject.)  Why is it that we know so little about the person who is clearly as significant a figure as Saint Hilda of Whitby?  Or the many other women of her period.  How do we fill those gaps in our collective history?  Hild is an attempt to do just that.

Buy this book.  Read it and savour it.

Goodreads rating: 5* 

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