The unnamed narrator of this novel has returned to her late grandfather’s farmhouse to sort through his papers before the house is sold. Jimmy, the grandfather, was a historian and as she goes through his final unfinished writings she reminisces about the stories he told her when she was a child. These stories relate to four historical figures – Edward IV, Peter the Great, Olaudah Equiano and General Kitchener. She intermingles these snippets of history with reminiscences about her grandparents.
Sadly I can’t find much positive to say about this book. It reads as if the author has jotted down lots of snippets of history that she has learned over the years and then tried to find some way to link them. The pieces of history are simply retellings, or often slightly reworded quotations, of fragments of the work of real historians and, although they are occasionally mildly interesting, there is no depth to them, nor any particular link between them. Hildyard also quotes copiously from the original chroniclers and, from time to time, from the essays of Virginia Woolf. In fact, I began to wonder what percentage of the book could really be said to be original. In her notes at the end, Hildyard says ‘the reading for this book was done haphazardly and for pleasure over several years’ and that, I’m afraid, is exactly what it reads like – unconnected notes made by a recreational reader.
On the whole the writing is technically fine, although the misuse of appendices for appendages when talking about soldiers’ wounds did cause me to giggle. I wouldn’t have been so mean as to mention it, except that Hildyard frequently patronises the reader by explaining the meanings of words or phrases that anyone with a passing interest in history or, indeed, reading would require no help to understand. The sections where she talks about her grandfather read like a rather dull travelogue as they visit real museums and galleries, where she lists and describes the various exhibits. And she frequently throws in irrelevant little factlets as if, because she knows a thing, she’s going to get it in somehow.
“Much of the Society literature boasts about the cattle’s ‘pure white coat’, even though white is a convergence of rays from a whole spectrum of colours, and therefore, in one sense, the most impure.”
The book has no emotional heart to it and no real narrative drive. I suspect the author was trying to make the point that the telling of history is always affected by the filter of the historian but, if that is the book’s purpose, then it’s hardly a new thought nor is the point particularly well made. While it’s well enough written in a technical sense and even moderately interesting in parts, overall I’m afraid I can’t recommend this one.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.