I am not the first one to connect Nicola Griffith’s to Hilary Mantel’s , but I did make the connection independently. Both books give me hope that there is a new appreciation for what I’ve come to call “immersive fiction.” Fiction that doesn’t necessarily hinge on a plot or an all-consuming conflict. Fiction that, instead, “immerses” the reader in the life and times of a character, whose life may indeed involve conflicts of various degrees, but which does not end by neatly tying up the loose ends.
Hild is an entirely imagined biography of the girl who grew up to become St. Hilda of Whitby. Griffith has researched the 7th Century down to the birds and the bees, colewort and lavender, tablet weaves and butter making. Into this rich tapestry of detail, she evokes real human beings, men and women that we recognize, by lifted eyebrow and shape of smile, the music lovers and the warriors, the power-hungry and those who care for their craft, friends and lovers, hungers, indulgence, foolishness, wisdom.
What I found especially fascinating was that Griffith gives Hild’s role as a “seer” a foundation, not in magic, but in nature. Her predictions of weather have mostly to do with noticing the habits of birds and animals, the sound of the wind in the trees. Her counsels in court are based on a combination of information, body language, tone of voice, and an intuitive grasp of human behavior. Hild notices everything. Only when it involves herself does she let her own fears and desires color her conclusions.
She watched a goshawk rolling and diving over the gorse and heather, crying like a gull. She didn’t see a mate; perhaps he soared and swooped for joy. She hiked along the cliff’s edge, paused to listen to the rock pipits building their nest in a crevice and watch the male feed beetles to his mate. The eggs would come soon.
When she thought at all, she thought in British, the language of the high places, of wild and wary and watchful things. A language of resistance and elliptical thoughts.
She climbed the paths morning and evening, breathing the salt-sharp air, watching the slow spring dusk tighten around the shore like an adder and the sea turn to jet. She was glad to be alone, to be free, to be high above the world, where she could see everything coming. She had people to protect.
This is more than beautiful writing. This is immersive fiction. Mantel did it with her fictive Cromwell, but this isn’t a entirely new fictive device. Up until a few years ago, when we opened a book, we expected to enter it, to get lost in it, to inhabit another place, another time, another life. I’m currently reading the Anthony Trollope Barchester novels on Kindle. Listening to Frank Delaney unpack Ulysses. Last summer, I got lost in The Raj Quartet, which some reviewer called the best 19th-century novel written in the 20th century. At some point, the world got faster, and so did our fiction. We open a book, we get some action. Action in the first paragraph is suggested by those in the know. Conflict as soon as possible. Don’t slow things down with too much description. I was told there were too many trees in The Year of the Crow. People stopped to eat too often in Ghosts of the Heart. Either they die or they get married in the end, but don’t take all day about it.
Hild takes 536 thin pages with relatively small type to tell us things like this:
On the last afternoon she walked four miles north along the shore, over sand and shingle and long beach grass. By one rill, where low tangled hawthorn and gorse grew among the long sea grass, she found a row of tiny wrens and mouse pups spiked on thorns: the work of the wariangle, the butcher-bird.
She walked half a mile inland, checking blackthorn hedges, but the only nest she found was abandoned. By it were thorns hung with two caterpillars and a bee: the work of their young. All gone now, master and apprentice, flown to warmer climes. Like kings, they ravaged then moved on, leaving their trophies hanging from battlements, drying to husks, proclaiming, My land, my law.
That’s Griffith’s Hild. At home in a world we’ll never know. Looking. Listening. Taking her time as she works her way through this marvelous life that Nicola Griffith has created for her. I’m glad I took the time to follow her.