Conversion Starter

Hild: A Novel BY Nicola Griffith. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hardcover, 560 pages. $27.

Historical fiction has always served as a partial exception to the widely accepted notion that a clear line divides literary fiction from its associates across the aisle in crime, science fiction and fantasy, romance, and so forth. Many of the canonically anointed authors of the European realist novel—Scott, Dickens, Hugo, Eliot, Tolstoy—embraced historical settings, and it is also the case, as Georg Lukács suggested, that realist fiction is written in and about history even when it depicts incidents that take place very close to the time of its composition: Balzac wrote historical novels of the present day. Marguerite Yourcenar, Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Gore Vidal: These names don’t quite come out of the canon of the most highly distinguished twentieth-century authors of fiction, but they don’t have the genre markings of a Chandler or a Bradbury either, and neither Don DeLillo nor Thomas Pynchon (to isolate a pair of eminent figures) has deemed the historical novel beneath him.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Nicola Griffith’s historical novel Hild bears such suggestively multiple literary affiliations. The book arrives with the imprimatur of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a publisher of literary fiction that has increasingly been turning its attention to the most intelligent and ambitious writers hitherto published under traditional genre rubrics. Griffith is a well-known author of crime fiction, with a popular and influential blog; FSG’s acquisition of her new novel is part of a pattern echoed in the publisher’s recent purchase of sci-fi author Jeff VanderMeer’s postapocalyptic Southern Reach trilogy. It is a happy development for readers of more conventionally literary fiction who might not have come across Hild if it were published as an analogue, say, to Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy and shelved in fantasy.

Hild recounts the early years of an actual seventh-century English girl. We know from history that our heroine will eventually become Saint Hilda of Whitby, but Griffith’s novel ends before this takes place: It is only late in the book that Hild—a worshipper of pagan gods—even receives Christian baptism. Hild is a coming-of-age story about a remarkable child treated by those around her as though she possesses supernatural powers. Griffith does not herself invoke occult forces. Rational and highly observant, Hild can analyze and predict everything from the weather to the behavior of other people, but she is uncanny only in the sense that that word might be used to describe the preternatural intuitions of a Sherlock Holmes or a great research scientist.

Hild is raised in and around the court circle of Northumbria at a moment when the intrusion of powerful Roman priests increasingly threatens to undermine the autonomy and hierarchy of local rule. Griffith realistically represents the brutality of everyday life in this milieu. She is interested in exploring the costs of slavery for both parties to the transaction, the ramifications of illness or injury in an age of physical violence, and the effects of political change at the highest level on the lives of individual people.

Griffith is British by birth and upbringing, though a longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest, and this novel falls into a tradition of British nature writing that is sensitive to flora, fauna, and the local contours of landscape (outstanding recent practitioners include Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane). The book also intersects with a distinguished lineage of writing for children—Rosemary Sutcliff’s fiction, for instance, and also books like Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone. That said, Hild cannot in any obvious sense be called a children’s book, even though this installment (not marked in any way as the first volume in a series, but covering a small enough tranche of a long and fascinating life that the ending will leave many readers impatient for a sequel) chronicles Hild’s childhood and adolescence exclusively, breaking off before she has fulfilled her ambitious mother’s possibly self-serving prophecy that she will become “the light of the world.” Even though she undergoes baptism, along with other members of the king’s court, Hild has not yet experienced anything in the way of a profound conversion to Christianity, so that we are left with a sense of potentiality, of an opening act rather than a main set.

In its ambition and intelligence, Hild might best be compared to Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell. Griffith does not have the extraordinary ability displayed in Mantel’s Wolf Hall to render densely populated political negotiations as vividly and concretely as one might describe the relationships between three or four members of a family—it is sometimes hard to follow the intricate rivalries between the many courts and princes of Hild—but she has other gifts Mantel doesn’t, especially that sharp eye for what happens to plants and animals (especially birds) over the course of the seasons, as well as an understated and just-lyrical-enough prose style that delights the reader locally without ever distracting from the forward movements of character and plot.

At some point it became conventional for literary novels to contain their worlds within a single installment—it is part of the idea of the perfect self-sufficiency of the post-Romantic literary artifact, and it is an important fact about a Mrs. Dalloway or a Gravity’s Rainbow that it doesn’t and can’t have a sequel. But there is something altogether refreshing about an ambitious novelist embracing a story so compelling, so complex, so full of material that it overflows the bounds of the solo volume and spills over into multiple further installments. Genre fiction or not, there is realism in this: following an individual life as it proceeds in great gushes of activity over many decades.

Jenny Davidson is the author of Reading Style: A Life in Sentences, to be published in 2014 by Columbia University Press.