Book review: Hunters in the Snow, By Daisy Hildyard

An ambitious debut novel patrols the disputed border country between history and fiction

Peter Carty
Monday 19 August 2013 12:22
Frozen moments: Author Daisy Hildyard
Frozen moments: Author Daisy Hildyard

History amounts to no more than a series of tales of uncertain veracity - or so postmodern historians would have it. So it follows that history is not necessarily any different from fiction. Daisy Hildyard splices them together to present a fictional narrative interleaved with historical stories. We begin as a young woman goes through the papers of her deceased grandfather, Jimmy, in his Yorkshire home.

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Jimmy was an old-fashioned historian who believed that history is about great men and great events. Accordingly, the material assembled for his unfinished history of modern England is dramatic. His account starts with the battle of Towton in 1461 when the Yorkists, led by the teenage Edward IV, smashed the Lancastrians in a bloody battle in a snowstorm. The title refers to the pursuit and slaughter of the defeated troops.

Another engrossing section concerns Tsar Peter the Great's incognito trip to London in 1697. Startlingly tall and thin, Peter was difficult to miss and rumours followed him around the city. He was the original nightmare tenant, stealing paintings, smashing windows and wreaking appalling damage upon the Deptford home of the writer John Evelyn. Later, Jimmy's researches cover a larger culture-clash, with the 19th-century adventures of former slave and anti-slavery campaigner Olaudah Equiano, who settled here and married an Englishwoman.

Much of this historical subject-matter involves epic journeys and yet, apart from prosaic family vacations, Jimmy himself stayed put in Yorkshire. The narrator emphasises that he lived through his books, but tells of the estrangement between Jimmy and his wife Liv as their remote farm fell into dilapidation.

While this aspect of the novel is engaging, inevitably it is overshadowed by the vitality of the historical episodes. At times the rendition of Jimmy's life resembles extracts from a biography and will perhaps merge fact and fiction too much for some readers.

Hildyard is the latest writer to be influenced by WG Sebald's plangent combinations of history and fiction, as well as by his insertion of images into texts. The question arises of whether Hildyard's own segues from present to past meld effectively enough to make her gamble with form pay off. Nevertheless, her debut novel is a pleasure throughout, in its haunting evocations of a historian's life and work.

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