If I were to tell you that I was going to recommend a book that is written entirely in 18th Century dialect you could be forgiven for thinking that I had gone quite mad. Nevertheless, I am about to do that very thing. The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones is a debut fantasy novel by Jack Wolf, a local lad from Somerset, which has been published as mainstream and is doing very well as such. It needs to get a bit of recognition in the genre world, so here I am giving it some.
The central character of the book is Tristan Hart, the son of a country squire. The book is told entirely in his voice, which is why it is in 18th Century dialect. I know some of Wolf’s writer friends (including Liz Williams) and I gather that Tristan’s voice, once Wolf found it, was the thing that made the novel come alive. This does not surprise me. It is essential to the novel that we, the readers, live inside Tristan’s head. He is, after all, quite mad. Or, alternatively, he is being menaced by faeries.
Let us back up for a while. Tristan’s father owns a country house in the Vale of the White Horse near Farringdon in Oxfordshire. It is (as fans of Paul Cornell already know), a fairly rustic environment. Indeed, Tristan’s home cannot be that far from the delightfully named village of Great Coxwell. Here, in Middle England, in the 18th Century, science and superstition collide. Tristan, having been tolerably well educated, fancies himself as a scientist. He has taken an interest in anatomy, perhaps because, like many small boys, he delights in capturing wild creatures and cutting them up to see how they work. But in such a country environment there are, inevitably, traveling people. Some might call them Gypsies. Others suspect that they are rather more than that.
Tristan’s life is complicated by the fact that he lives in the Country amongst relatively poor members of the Upper Classes who, as is the way with such persons, are much taken with matters of Status and Propriety. His Mother having died before the narrative starts, Tristan is vulnerable to the Machinations of his fearsome Aunt Barnaby, who is an enthusiastic Social Climber, and devoutly Conservative in her world view.
If you have detected a sudden profusion of Capital Letters in the text, dear Reader, that is because I have become afflicted with the style of diction that Tristan adopts. I am performing a woeful parody thereof, and will endeavour to cease doing so least Jack take it badly.
Sorry, had to slap myself there. Hopefully I am back to normal now. I must stop dipping into the darn book. It is infectious.
The other principal influence in Tristan’s life is his best mate, Nathaniel Ravenscroft, who is of somewhat lower status and friendly with some of the traveling folk. It is through him that Tristan becomes acquainted with a girl called Viviane who may, if Tristan is to be believed, have the power to transform herself into a white owl. The encounter does not go well, and having earned the scorn of someone who might just be a faerie princess, young Tristan’s life takes a turn for the worse.
Fortunately for him, Tristan is sent away to London to study, for it is only there that he can meet gentlemen of science. Here, for those of you interested in 18th Century history, the book really takes off. It turns out that Tristan’s father is a good friend of a fellow called Henry Fielding, who is both a writer of fictions and a social reformer. Through him, Tristan is able to make the acquaintance of Dr. William Hunter, the greatest anatomist of the day.
18th Century medicine is decidedly gruesome. One of the most powerful scenes in the book is one where Tristan assists with an operation to remove a cancerous tumour from a woman’s breast without anaesthetic. Yes, they really did that sort of thing. Ow!
Tristan’s problem with anatomy is that it turns out that he greatly enjoys inflicting pain on others. He is also given to violent rages. This may be because he is under a faerie curse, or possibly because of some affliction of the brain that could be cured by appropriate surgery. Or maybe he is just a vicious sadist. Who knows?
Eventually, because this is a novel, some resolution to these issues must be found, and Tristan must be allowed to live his life, if not free from his urges, than at least at peace with them. As is somewhat inevitable for someone who has incurred the scorn of a faerie princess, he can only be cured by the love of a mortal woman. Wolf never quite puts it in those terms, but the structure of the story is there nonetheless.
Along the way there is a lot of great material, including a lovely section during which most of the cast think that Tristan has gone quite mad, and Wolf handles it so perfectly that for a long time the reader is never quite sure whether this is true or not. There is also a magnificent moment in which the horrible Aunt Barnaby finally gets her comeuppance, and which could have come straight out of Father Ted.
I should raise one potential trigger warning. Besides the obvious unpleasantness of the surgical scenes, the book may be problematic if you have a history of self-harm. I have no real knowledge of such things, or of consensual sado-masochistic relationships, so I don’t really know whether there is a problem or not. At least if there is you have been warned.
I really enjoyed this book. It is infused with a love of history, with the joy of unreliable narration, and with just enough of the fantastic to make it enjoyable for a genre reader without being unpalatable for all but the most rigid of LitCrit snobs. Tristan’s voice really comes alive, which is a fabulous achievement for a first novel. And while much of the book is quite gruesome, there are bits that are very funny too.
The book has already sold in translation to at least two European languages, and I append below the absolutely wonderful cover that the French publisher produced for it. Really, how can you not want a book with a cover like that? Sadly you’d have to read it in French, but if I can get hold of the French dust jacket and it fits the UK edition then I’m re-covering my copy.
Buy this book from:
The Book Depository