My neighborhood book group chose Hild by Nicola Griffith, a historical novel set in the 600’s, for our December selection. By the time we met, I was still only halfway through the book and found the beginning to be a bit of a struggle, but we had an interesting discussion about it, and I decided to finish it. I’m so glad I did because the story really picked up in the second half of the book, and I ended up enjoying it very much, even though it took me three weeks to finish it!
Saint Hilda was a real-life Catholic saint who was born around 614, but little is known of her early life. Griffith took the barest skeleton of facts about Hild’s childhood and built a full, detailed novel around it, with plenty of factual information about life during that time. The novel opens when Hild is about three years old, living an idyllic life on her father’s estate (he is a prince in line for the throne), playing outdoors with her best friend, Cian, the son of her mother’s closest servant/friend (royal women were paired with a gemaecce or lifelong female companion). Hild’s simple life is shattered when her father is killed.
Hild’s mother, searching for a place and situation where Hild and her older sister can grow up safe, moved the three of them (as well as Cian and his mother) to the home of Edwin, king of Northumbria (the northeastern part of England). Hild is not only the king’s niece but she is also rumored to have supernatural powers to see the future, based on a dream her mother had when she was pregnant and Hild’s quiet way of observing the smallest details in the world around her.
The role of king’s seer is a powerful, heavy mantle for such a young girl, and as Hild grows up, she feels more and more isolated. The minute details of her life and childhood are set against the backdrop of a violent world, where there is a constant struggle for power and territory. In addition, there is a new force at work in England – Catholicism is gaining a foothold as the old gods are gradually being discarded for the new God. This new religion is also wrapped up in the power struggles taking place across the land, and scarcely a year goes by without some sort of war or battle.
As I mentioned, I really struggled with the first half of this book, as did most others in my book group. The downside of the authentic story and factual details is that the author uses a lot of unfamiliar words – people’s names, place names, and lots of unfamiliar words. Three languages were in common use in Hild’s time in England – Old Irish, Ancient British, and Old English (Anglisc), plus Hild learned Latin from a priest who tutored her. This sprinkling of real words from that time certainly adds an authenticity to the novel, but it makes for slow, difficult reading at first. The beginning of the book includes a map and a family tree, both quite complicated and filled with unpronounceable names. Thankfully, I discovered a brief glossary at the back of the book early on, but I spent a lot of time flipping back and forth between text, map, family tree, and glossary during the first half of the book. One neighbor also pointed out a pronunciation guide at the back that I wish I’d known about earlier – that helped a lot!
At our book group meeting, I asked everyone if I should bother finishing it. Ratings for this book were all over the board – some people couldn’t get past the first chapters, many gave it a 6 or 7, and one even gave it a 10 because she loves reading about this time period. Though several people advised me to give up, one neighbor said, “This book is like a rollercoaster – the beginning is a slow, difficult climb, but after the halfway point, the pace picks up and it gets better.” She was right! I was curious enough to want to know what happened to Hild next, so I kept reading and ended up enjoying the novel.
During that second half of the novel, once you are becoming more familiar with the people, places, and vocabulary of the time, the story takes over, and it is a very interesting, compelling story. Hild has so much responsibility on her shoulders from such a young age that I wanted her to just be able to enjoy being a kid for a while. She’s an intriguing, complicated character but very likable. The novel doesn’t just cover her childhood but also her adolescence, so it’s a coming-of-age story as well. If you enjoy historical fiction – and especially that set in the early time periods – then you will probably enjoy this book. The historical background and growth of the Catholic church across the land were fascinating. Just be aware that the beginning can be a bit difficult, but it is worth sticking around for the intriguing story of this uniquely powerful little girl. By the end, I was interested in reading the sequel that Griffith is now working on!
536 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux