4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Light and dark,
This review is from: The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones (Hardcover)
A hard book to summarise.
Jack Wolf explores the mid eighteenth century, which he portrays as balanced between a scientific future and the superstitious past. Talented and intelligent Tristan Hart grows up on his father's country estate west of Oxford. Tristan's mother is dead, his father remote and lost in grief, and his only companion is Nathaniel Ravenscroft, tearaway son of the local Vicar.
Tristan is attracted both by the sensual life that Nathaniel pursues and by the study of science, specifically anatomy, to which end he sets up his own dissecting room. Eventually, Tris persuades his father to allow him to study medicine in London, under the care of novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding. From then, his life is pulled three ways. He has an ambition to become a surgeon and investigate the world - especially, the causes and cures of pain - using rational investigation. He is obsessed with the woman Vivianne who he believes is a fairy queen and terrified of her dark world of gnomes and goblins and especially of the dark story of Raw Head and Bloody Bones. Finally, there is the dark pleasure he takes from others' pain (" 'Tis a species of love") which he is now able to indulge in the pleasure houses of Covent Garden.
These forces shape Tristan's life and as they twist and turn they are reflected in a narrative also taking place on three levels - the rational everyday, episodes of madness or delusion which he suffers, and the world of dreams which he - and those around him - take very seriously. So it is hard to unpick these themes and to know whether something "really" happened as Tristan describes, or whether it is a delusion or a dream. At times I even began to wonder whether Nathaniel was actually real, paging back to see if anyone except Tristan ever met him (it's noteworthy that Nathaniel never suffers punishment when he and Tris get into a scrape, because he disappears as soon as any trouble arises. Is he really no more than an imaginary friend?)
Wolf skilfully uses these different levels of meaning to drive Tristan's attempts to free himself of his "madness', save himself from Vivianne, find his friend Nathaniel and discover the truth about the girl he has fallen in love with. I think it's a testament to his storytelling skills that one can at the same time sympathise with Tristan, find his behaviour repellent, and wish him success - while not having any clear idea what "success" would actually mean for him.
There is murder here. There is gory dissection. There is cruelty, pain and abuse of the innocent. The crimes and sins of a century are woven into a compelling story, the story of a Monster (self described) and his attempt to redeem himself. Whether or not he succeeds is, I think, a nice matter of judgement: I'm just not sure.
A final point - twice, I nearly set this book aside. The first occasion was nine or ten pages in, when I realised that the pseudo-18th Century Style, and Spelling, with all the Nounes capitalised, would go on throughout the Booke. I soon got used to this, however. The second was Tristan's first visit to Mrs Hayward's establishment in Covent Garden with its accompanying descriptions of manacles and whips. This is a matter of taste, but I'd generally prefer not to read about such stuff. In the end, though, there is actually not that much of it in the book. This may of use both to those who like to read about such things and those who don't.