Little, Brown, £17.99, 402pp. £16.19 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Shieldwall, By Justin Hill

There are holes in our sense of the past, places where the average person's knowledge does a jump-cut - from Alfred building his kingdom to Ethelred paying the Danes to go away to Canute and the waves and then the Norman Conquest. There is a lot to be said for historical fiction as a way of filling in those gaps, providing us with a sense of events and progression and giving them a human face. After travel books and novels in which Justin Hill dealt with the matter of China, writing about the forging of England must have seemed not only a challenge but a way of coming home: of writing about the landscapes of Sussex and the North before a millennium of agricultural revolutions, and about a very different and more dangerous Britain.

Shieldwall is the story of how Harold Godwin rose from being the son of a comparatively obscure and exiled thane to become the most powerful man in England – a man whose son became the king, briefly, and precipitated the Norman Conquest by doing so. One of the strengths of Hill's gloomy novel is precisely this sense of significance and foreboding. The battles and feuds here are not only important in themselves; they are foci of dramatic irony on the grandest of scales.

Godwin is a hostage at the court of Ethelred and becomes a boon companion of the king's son Edmund. Later he helps Edmund resist the invasion of Knut. The fact that we know that the charismatic Edmund will fail, and Godwin will achieve most by making his peace with the Danish invader, is perpetually present as an undercurrent.

Parts of the book are intensely likeable and moving. Hill invents a slave girl, Kendra, who nurses Godwin's father during his death in Irish exile and ends up as the son's mistress. The relationship manages to seem touching, based on growing mutual respect, as much as it is perverse and based on fundamental inequality. Hill hints at such moments that the people of past times had inner lives as complex and ambivalent as ours.

However, much of the time he leaves those inner lives alone, while presenting their performative lives of action and argument in simplistic terms. He has made the intelligent, but wrong-headed, decision to take the Icelandic sagas as his model for representing public life, with the result that his characters stand around being taciturn when not hitting each other with axes. Combining the Hemingwayesque with touches of what EP Thompson called "the massive condecension of posterity" – the presentation of their cultural life as utterly barren – makes, much of the time, for a dull read. This is a book full of over-literary silences between men in meadhalls, whereas one might suspect that the problem would be getting them to shut up for five minutes.

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