Following the death of her grandfather, an unnamed young woman returns to his snow-bound, tumbledown Yorkshire farm to sort out his possessions and discovers in his bureau an unfinished manuscript. If this seems a conventional opening to a novel, prepare to be surprised. The manuscript turns out to be an eccentric history of England, an erudite but entertaining smorgasbord of anecdote and scholarship, pungently flavoured with reflections on the nature of the historian’s craft.
In it he concentrates on four main narratives; the very different winter journeys of four great men. She reads of the exiled Edward IV, who returned to England in 1471, marching on London to reclaim his throne; about Tsar Peter the Great travelling incognito with his retinue around the frozen city 200 years later; of the former African slave Olaudah Equiano touring England in the 1780s to promote his autobiography; and the mystery of Lord Kitchener’s disappearance in a 1916 shipwreck. A link between these accounts is deception, in contrast to a historian’s search for truth.
As she turns the pages or tries to decide what to save from the mass of associated notes and memorabilia in her grandfather’s study, the young woman ruminates on her own childhood visits to the farm in the 1980s and 1990s, and picturesquely describes the ramshackle nature of day-to-day existence with her grandparents.
She recounts the many stories her grandfather told about their own family and other people’s, his aphorisms about history and philosophy. Although the overarching narrative of this debut novel is perhaps slight, Daisy Hildyard’s skill has been to weave all the disparate elements into a seamlessly structured and utterly absorbing investigation of our relationship with the past.
I say “novel” with confidence, because the author takes the trouble to assure us that the book is fiction. However, the writing, with its use of text and image, its mix of conventions from historical account to memoir, has a strong non-fiction feel, the fictional form allowing greater creative freedom.
It’s presumably the fruit of years of roaming through libraries, examining dusty tomes in second-hand bookshops, and the novel conveys the delight of these old-fashioned pleasures, which is why I loved it.
Despite the apparently random associations of the narrative, it’s all so beautifully controlled. Thus a description of Peter the Great waiting to watch a ship being carried across a Dutch dyke segues naturally into a discussion about Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo, in which a boat is transported through Amazon rainforest, then into a detailed account of the dangerous attempt by the girl and her grandfather one Guy Fawkes’ Night to recreate, from scratch, the sort of fireworks that the Russian Emperor adored.
Here is a novel so rich in texture it deserves many rereadings.