The Wilding, By Maria McCann

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The Independent Culture

One of the difficulties of setting novels in the past is to present honestly the smells and the dirt, the inconvenience and casual cruelty, and yet to do it with respect. The historian EP Thompson condemned "the enormous condecension of posterity" and he was right; we have to be true to our own values but yet understand why they were not the values of our ancestors. It is difficult - but necessary to the making of serious art from material that can too easily become commercial template fiction. Maria McCann managed it in her excellent first novel of the English Civil Wars, As Meat Loves Salt, and she manages it again in this, her second.

The wilding is an apple tree, a cross whose fruit creates cider of uncertain quality and flavour. This makes it of interest to young Jonathan Dymond, who travels between the few villages that are his world with a portable cider press, giving those too poor to own a press of their own the benefit of his knowledge and counsel.

When his uncle, who made a rich marriage, dies, Jonathan becomes aware of family secrets. His uncle haunts his dreams, makes him feel that he can only be free of nightmare if he finds out all the things he has not been told. He is also a young man, waiting for his family to find him a bride, and becomes obsessed with his aunt's illiterate servant, Tamar.

Part of what he does not know is complicated gothic family stuff about wills and heirs and bastardy, and the possibility of a witch trial - and part an incident of exquisite cruely when his family intersected for a moment with the lawless rabble of Royalist troops that occupied the village where his aunt and uncle live back in the Civil Wars, two decades earlier.

This is a Restoration England which is neither especially merry nor especially repressed. The travelling press his father has built for him is one of the few signs of a modernity struggling to be born, just as the vicar who hovers round his aunt is a dying gasp of the old clerical authority.

This book ought not to work - or rather ought only to work as a gothic romance of sensation and revelation. What makes it rather more is the skill with which McCann takes us into Jonathan's confused blend of selfishness and generosity, his desire to know and the refusal to face unpleasant facts that goes in tandem with it.

Bad people act with a malice that makes them less than human, and the good make compromises with evil, carelessness and false morality that come back to wreck them. It is a chastening tour de force: we too think that we can reserve our kindness to those we think deserve it, only to find that all too often we are deceived and self-deceived, and cruel even in our charities. Like the best novels about the past, McCann's is an angry rebuke to our present difficulties.