Wolfson History Prize 2019 Blog Tour: Building Anglo-Saxon England by John Blair


‘Outside the precincts of minsters,’ John Blair writes in the conclusion to his magnificent new monograph, Building Anglo-Saxon England, almost everything that was built before the year 1000 carried with it no expectation that it would last. The Anglo-Saxons conceived their secular building and planning projects as the “Beowulf” poet did Herorot: “The hall towered aloft, high and wide-gabled: it awaited the upheavals of war and malicious fire.”‘ The question that this book confronts is: how can we find out how Anglo-Saxon settlements developed if their timber buildings have long disappeared? As Blair puts it: ‘this was a culture whose sophisticated artisanship and careful structuring of the built environment sat remarkably lightly in the landscape.’ As anyone who had the chance to visit the stunning British Library Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition will know, the Anglo-Saxons left behind much material evidence in the form of what Blair calls ‘small precious objects’ – the treasures of the Sutton Hoo excavations and Staffordshire Hoard, and fantastic illuminated manuscripts such as the Lindisfarne Gospels – but what did their larger works look like?

Objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, c.600, and an image from the Lindisfarne Gospels, c.715-720

Building Anglo-Saxon England, covering the period 600-1100, takes an innovative methodological approach to this problem (historians please note that I am writing as a general reader here, rather than with my historian hat on; as a modernist, I can’t fully assess how novel these claims are!) Blair explains that the integration of archaeological and historiographical findings allows us to draw a much more detailed picture of the settlements and buildings of Anglo-Saxon England than was possible in the past. Despite the wealth of material evidence discovered by archaeological digs since the 1980s, historians have not been able to access this ‘grey literature’ easily because most of it is unpublished and unprinted. On the other hand, archaeologists of early medieval England have taken a ‘prehistoric’ approach to this period despite the fact that textual evidence (albeit extremely patchy, and limited to certain geographical areas such as Wessex and Northumbria) does exist. Blair also emphasises the importance of drawing on other disciplines such as anthropology, geography and place-name studies in rewriting the history of Anglo-Saxon settlement.


5th century excavations. From the Anglo-Saxon Archaeology blog.

Blair’s conclusions are numerous, but some of his most important points are as follows. Firstly, he argues, Anglo-Saxon secular architecture was likely as sophisticated and complex as the smaller material goods that they have left behind. Regional diversity is crucial to understanding settlement patterns, especially in considering the autonomous development of Mercia, and England was influenced equally by the Frankish (Carolingian) and Scandinavian worlds after 650. However, this is not only important for architectural historians or archaeologists; work on ‘rank, lordship and estate management’ needs to take account of how much things varied from place to place, and not assume that the social structures of eastern England and the East Midlands dominated everywhere, especially before 920. This means that many popular assumptions about an homogenous feudal society made up of lords and peasants and the ‘caging of the peasantry’ by feudal law may have to be rethought, even for the later medieval period.

But while this enormous book will surely be of interest to scholars, how accessible is it to the general reader? One obvious barrier is its sheer size; I can barely lift it one-handed, certainly can’t turn pages unless I use both hands, and struggle to rest it comfortably on my lap. However, the reason it’s so big isn’t because it’s overlong but because of the huge number of maps and diagrams that Blair has somehow managed to persuade his publisher to include; far more than is normal for an historical monograph. Given the nature of the subject, these are essential. And while the book may be physically heavy, its contents are less daunting than you might imagine. Starting Building Anglo-Saxon England reminded me of sitting down with someone who knows a lot more than you about a subject you never thought you were interested in; you think the conversation is going to be boring, but actually they win you over with their sheer enthusiasm, knowledge and clarity.

I received a free copy of this book for review from Midas PR as part of the Wolfson History Prize blog tour. 

The other titles shortlisted for the Wolfson History Prize 2019 are as follows (just look at this beast sitting on the top!) and the winner will be announced on 11th June.

books-2019-2Don’t forget to check out the other stops on the blog tour this week!


The Books That Made Me, Part 2

Part I can be found here. Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Early Teenage Years (13 to 16)


In my early teens, SF and fantasy still dominated my reading, with a little more realism creeping in. I read Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom as a child, along with many of her other novels, but in my early teens, my absolute favourite was Back Home, about a twelve-year-old girl, Rusty, who returns to England at the end of the Second World War after being evacuated to the States. As someone who spent a significant part of her childhood in Washington DC before moving ‘back home’ to England, where I was born, I strongly identified with Rusty. As I got older, I appreciated Magorian’s subtle characterisation more and more; Back Home is less idealised than Goodnight Mister Tom, and the adult characters don’t split so neatly into good and bad.

Berlie Doherty’s The Sailing Ship Tree really shaped my own writing as a teenager; set in the Edwardian period, it describes the emerging friendship between ‘Master George’, the privileged son of a landed family, and twins Dorothy and Walter, who live on his estate. Told in multiple viewpoints, The Sailing Ship Tree has virtually no plot but is emotionally complex and very moving.

I devoured Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights when it first came out and waited eagerly for the next two books in the series. Sadly, I’ve found that I don’t enjoy re-reading Pullman as an adult, but I absolutely loved all the His Dark Materials books as a teenager. Going to a comprehensive school in Bath where evangelical Christianity was surprisingly dominant among my fellow pupils, I ate up Pullman’s opposition to organised religion, even though I now find his world-view simplistic and aggressive. I also loved reading Pullman’s writing advice, much of which is quite sound, and his suggestion [paraphrased] that ‘writers should study anything but English Literature’ had a big hand in me choosing a History degree.

John Christopher’s The Lotus Caves is about two teenagers living on the moon who fall through its surface into a strange underground world. Eerie and compelling, I still enjoy reading this. Another SF favourite was Lois Lowry’s much more famous The Giver, which still has me pondering ethical questions about the distribution of resources in a fair society, the problems with sexual attraction, and how we handle feelings.

Finally, Susan Cooper’s time-slip story King of Shadows had a much bigger impact on me than her more famous Dark Is Rising series, which I read as a child. Nathan, mourning the loss of his parents, is flung back in time and becomes an actor in Shakespeare’s company. This rather whimsical premise is rooted in clever historical detail and a beautiful exploration of the filial bond that develops between Nathan and Shakespeare.

Late Teenage Years (16 to 19)


While the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books were not as structurally perfect as the first three, they fuelled my Harry Potter obsession further; this article gives a pretty good account of how it felt to be a teenage fan in the years before book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, came out. While I never ‘shipped’ Sirius and Lupin, I was just as devoted to seeking out clues in the text of the first five books as were the romance-orientated fans described in the article linked above. I was convinced that the moral complexity that seemed to be emerging in book five, when Sirius tells Harry that ‘the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters‘, would pay off, and spent hours on the internet discussing theories with fellow fans – both other teenagers, and adults. Therefore, it’s hard to convey just how disappointed I was by book six without sounding silly. I’d invested so much time and effort into this series, and I felt like JKR had thrown it all in my face – the terrible romance, the awful plotting, the evil-from-birth baby Tom Riddle who ‘never cried’. I’m not going to write extensively about Harry Potter here because I have a Monster Rant post coming up, but suffice it to say that my anger with books six and seven was incredibly formative. As an adult, I can see that many of the structural problems that afflicted the last two books in the series were present in books four and five as well, but the material in those books was so much more generous and interesting, that I still like them even though I know I shouldn’t.

Luckily, George R.R. Martin stepped in to fill the fantasy gap. I first read A Game of Thrones in 2004, when seemingly no-one else in the UK had heard of it, and became totally addicted to A Song of Ice and Fire, blazing through the next three books over the next year. Please always remember: these books are nothing like the TV series. Rather than a nihilistic world portrayed through a series of misogynistic tropes, Martin presents a universe that is brutal and misogynistic, but where hope and honour can win out, and with a large and diverse female cast who deal with Westerosi society in their own way. What Martin is best at is handling the readers’ sympathies; making us rethink our own allegiances; exploring shades of grey. It’s a literary skill that I still think is massively underrated, and it’s been hugely influential on my own writing. One day I’m going to write a longer post about A Song of Ice and Fire, but suffice it to say that it ENRAGES me that the Harry Potter series has a wholly undeserved ‘feminist’ reputation, whereas Song is written off as sexist, largely because of the awful TV series.


And now we get to the really formative books, the books that have had the most profound impact on the way I read and write. The most significant of these has to be Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. As an eighteen-year-old, I was entranced by how Ishiguro approached speculative fiction; throwing scientific accuracy out the window in favour of emotional truth. Kathy H’s voice is absolutely convincing, and I still think about Tommy’s tantrums: ‘Maybe I knew something all along. Something the rest of you didn’t’. If you haven’t read this uncanny story of three teenagers growing up in a peculiar school, what on earth are you waiting for?

Two classic novels also shaped my mindset during this period. My school had been given a free set of Everyman’s Classics at some point, so around the age of sixteen, I started methodically reading through them. I had studied Jane Eyre in Year Nine and liked it, but Charlotte Bronte’s lesser-known and yet greater novel, Villette, totally blew me away. Lucy Snowe, its protagonist, is a strikingly modern heroine who only slowly infiltrates her way into the narrative. She’s an unreliable and not totally likeable narrator, but Bronte’s exploration of her emotional isolation is utterly heartbreaking. I’ve written more about Villette here. Similarly, Middlemarch was an education; the ways in which Eliot extends sympathy to each and every character are still too little replicated in modern novels. (Though it’s clearly an inferior text, I also loved Adam Bede).

Finally, I returned to a childhood favourite, Robin McKinley, for two novels that I’ve re-read countless times. Rose Daughter, a second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, shaped how I write about place and landscape, with its beautiful evocation of the Beast’s castle and the roses that Beauty cultivates there. (Poor McKinley has been lumbered with some terrible covers in her time – please ignore the fact that this looks like a bad romance novel!) Sunshine, which featured vampires before they became fashionable, is a totally different kind of story, with its rambling, captivating narrator and brilliantly imagined futuristic world. I’m only allowed to re-read this very occasionally for fear of wearing the magic out; I love it so much.

What were your favourite teenage reads, and do you still enjoy them now?

[NB. I have put the promised Parts 2 and 3 into one post as there wasn’t really a sensible way to separate them – hence why this is so long!]

My Top Ten Books of 2018

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

In no particular order…


1. Speak No Evil: Uzodinma Iweala. Iweala’s second novel tells, at first glance, a very familiar story. Teenage Niru is quietly trying to fit in at an upscale DC school, although he’s set apart by being both black and gay. But its brilliance comes from Iweala’s experimental literary style, blending Niru’s dialogue and interior monologue in a way that captures his voice and yet makes complete sense to the reader. Iweala’s debut, Beasts of No Nation, is definitely on my TBR list for 2019. Speak No Evil was a NetGalley discovery, and I reviewed it here.


2. Bookworm: Lucy Mangan. How much did I adore this engrossing memoir, in which journalist Lucy Mangan takes us on a tour of the books she loved in childhood and adolescence? Along the way, she also writes hilariously and delightfully about herself and her family. I’ve already given this as a gift to two friends. This was picked up after reading so many positive reviews of it from other bloggers, and I reviewed it here.


3. The Western WindSamantha Harvey. This was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, and it didn’t disappoint. I already knew Harvey was an incredible writer, but in this novel, she manages to write with impressive historical empathy about the late medieval mindset, narrating in the voice of a village priest, John Reve, investigating the murder of one of his flock. The novel is told backwards, but, as Reve teases out the truth in the final pages, it ends up becoming almost a circle, mirroring how fifteenth-century villagers might have thought about time.  I also loved Harvey’s Dear Thief when I read it, and I’ll have to check out her back catalogue in 2019; All Is Song looks especially intriguing. I reviewed The Western Wind here.


4. Let Go My Hand: Edward Docx. This was one of my 20 Books of Summer, and while it’s the third of Docx’s novels I’ve read, it’s the first one that really blew me away. Louis journeys with his terminally ill father, Larry, towards Switzerland so Larry can end his life at Dignitas. When Louis’s two older half-brothers, Ralph and Jack, turn up, Docx takes us back through their complicated family history as well as unpicking the way they relate to each other now. Let Go My Hand is one of those very unusual books that manage to be both genuinely funny and profoundly moving. It’s been unfairly overlooked by most critics, and I can’t recommend it enough. I reviewed it here.


5. The Growing Season: Helen Sedgwick. In a year packed with speculative re-imaginings of pregnancy, child-bearing and motherhood, The Growing Season easily stood out for me. Sedgwick imagines a world where babies are now nurtured in artificial wombs, installed in wearable pouches, and getting pregnant in the old-fashioned way is stigmatised. Sedgwick’s narrative is admirably even-handed, refusing to present this technological advance as either dystopian or as straightforwardly liberatory, and the result is a consistently thought-provoking, moving and gripping piece of speculative fiction. The Growing Season was another of my 20 Books of Summer, and I reviewed it here.


6. Asymmetry: Lisa Halliday. Also on my 20 Books of Summer list, Halliday’s courageous debut faces questions about fiction and authenticity head-on, even though it begins on cliched ground, as a young writer, Alice, starts an affair with a much older writer, Ezra. I reviewed it here.


7. Melmoth: Sarah Perry. I didn’t really love either After Me Comes The Flood or The Essex Serpentbut I was captivated by this Calvinist horror story about sin, regret and redemption. Perry creates a terrifying female figure called Melmoth the Wanderer (based on Charles Maturin’s 1820 Gothic novel), who wanders through history seeking out lost souls and bearing witness to acts of unspeakable evil. I reviewed Melmoth here.


8. Leaving Atlanta: Tayari Jones. Jones’s latest novel, An American Marriagehas received a lot of attention this year, especially after being named by Obama as one of his summer reads. However, I was even more impressed by her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which I chose for my book group in November. The novel is set in Atlanta in 1979, when dozens of African-American children were going missing. Narrated from the perspective of three fifth-graders, it uses this particular tragedy to say broader things about the fears that  black children internalise as they approach adolescence. I’m now keen to read more by Jones, and The Untelling is up next. I wrote briefly about Leaving Atlanta here.


9. The OverstoryRichard Powers. Powers’s Booker-shortlisted novel takes nine protagonists and sets them in relation to the fight to stop the remnants of ancient American forests being destroyed. Despite deliberately reducing the significance of humanity in light of a much longer natural history and the destruction we’re wreaking on the planet, it also presents a number of closely observed portraits of individuals. Lots of recent books have brought up the scientific hypothesis that trees talk to each other, but The Overstory makes the best use of it. Powers has a big backlist, and I think I’ll try The Echo Maker next. I reviewed The Overstory here.


10. The Boat People: Sharon Bala. Bala’s debut starts with a group of Sri Lankan refugees arriving in Canada in 2009, and flips between three first-person perspectives: Mahindan, a refugee; Japanese-Canadian Grace, charged with adjudicating the refugees’ asylum claims; and second-generation Sri Lankan lawyer Priya. The Boat People is thoughtful and authentic, raising similar questions to Melmoth about our own moral limits, although in a less explicitly horrific way. I reviewed it here.

Reading Stats

I read 155 books in 2018. This sets a new record for me, smashing my 2017 total of 127. Next year, I’ll set a target of 125 – I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself to keep outdoing the previous year’s total.

I read 39 books by men and 116 by women. This has been the worst year yet for men, making up only 25% of the books I read. I’m not especially interested in setting any targets for reading male authors but I note that, as usual, men are slightly over-represented in my Top Ten books, making up 30% of the list. I’d like to continue seeking out books by male authors I’ve enjoyed in the past, and try and discover some new ones.

I read 44 books by writers of colour and 111 books by white writers. As in previous years, I’ve read more books by writers of colour than ever before, but my percentages only inch up very slowly. 28% of the books I read this year were by writers of colour (as compared to 25% in 2017 and 15% in 2016). I’m going to set a more achievable target for this year, and try and get that 28% to 33%, or one-third of all books I read.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books:

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Tag: How I Choose My Books

Borrowed from Hannah at I Have Thoughts on Books.

Find a book on your shelves with a pink cover. What made you pick up the  book in the first place?


When I was seventeen, my youth theatre group took part in the initial stages of the National Theatre Connections project, which commissions ten new plays from well-known playwrights for young people to perform. We got together with the National Theatre’s youth theatre group, all the potential directors and the playwrights to workshop the plays. I was picked to workshop Ali Smith’s Just (which is an amazing play that I still think about today) and, like the committed young person I was, decided that I also had to read one of her novels in preparation. My school library had Hotel World. Alas, Ali wasn’t able to make it to the workshop after all, but I loved Hotel World – I’d never read anything like it at that age – and we had a fab two days with Jeremy Stockwell instead, who was mad and brilliant.

Think of a book you didn’t expect to enjoy but did. Why did you read it in the first place?


As I said in my review of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht, ‘I almost didn’t read this book because I thought it was going to be a story about a boy meeting a magical tiger.’ I found out that it was nothing of the kind – and it ended up being possibly my favourite Orange Prize winner ever. (I read it in the first place because it was on the Orange Prize shortlist.) I have also now read and enjoyed Yann Martel’s Life of Pi – which was the first book I ever read on a Kindle – which could arguably be said to be about a boy meeting a magical tiger, so I’m not sure what my problem with boys and magical tigers was in the first place.

Stand in front of your bookshelf with your eyes closed and pick up a book at random. How did you discover this book?


I read Suzanna Clarke’s collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, in 2007, after reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I can’t remember much about it now, other than, like all Clarke’s work, it’s long on charming detail and a little short on satisfying storytelling (Jonathan Strange is so long for such a simple plot – and I was annoyed that Clarke went for such black-and-white characterisation – Mr Norrell will always be my favourite). The question here is really how I discovered Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in the first place, but I can’t remember. I must have read it before I went to university, because footnotes still seemed very novel.

To go off on a tangent, I heard Clarke talk about Jonathan Strange in 2005 and she told a story that I still use when I want to argue that striving for perfect historical accuracy in historical novels is a losing game. The novel begins in 1806 in York Minster, which the book refers to as York Cathedral. Clarke received many letters telling her that York Cathedral is always known as York Minster. She explained that this is the case, except at the precise time Jonathan Strange is set, when it was not. However, this still sounds ‘wrong’ to modern readers. On the other hand, Clarke did admit that she used Jane Austen’s spelling in the book because she thought it was authentically Regency, then realised that Austen’s spelling is quite specific to Austen…

Pick a book that someone personally recommended to you. What did you think of it?


My dad recommended Restless, William Boyd’s novel about espionage during the Second World War, and it has become one of the elite number of books that my dad and I both really like (I think all these books are by either William Boyd, Bernard Cornwell or George R.R. Martin). It’s also the only spy novel I’ve ever read that I’ve liked.

Pick a book you discovered through book blogs. Did it live up to the hype?


I discover most books through book blogs these days, but back in the day, I was impressed by George Mackay Brown’s Vinland, a modern Viking saga, after reading Victoria’s review on Eve’s Alexandria – one of many Eve’s Alexandria-inspired reads. My review is here on my old blog.

Find a book on your shelves with a one word title. What drew you to this book?


I was drawn to Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley because it was by Robin McKinley, with whom I am obsessed. This book, about a boy living in a dragon sanctuary, is not one of her best, but luckily she’s also written lots of other excellent books with one-word titles, including Deerskin, Chalice, Beauty and Sunshine, as well as some other excellent books with slightly longer titles, such as The Hero and the Crown, Spindle’s End and Rose Daughter.

What book did you discover through a film/TV adaptation?


A really tricky category, as I don’t watch very many films or much TV, so it normally goes the other way. The only example I can think of is Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education, which I came to through the Carey Mulligan film. I was amused to find out that some of the dodgy dealings in this memoir took place on a street I used to live on in Cambridge!

Is anyone else keen to do this tag? Would love to hear other people’s answers!

Holiday reading in the South of France, May 2018

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I’ve just got back from the South of France, where a friend and I spent five days travelling through Toulouse, Albi, Cordes-sur-Ciel and Carcassonne – I travelled straight from another friend’s wedding in London last weekend. Over the past week or so, I’ve had a run of reads that didn’t quite satisfy me for one reason or another, bookended by one very good novel, and one that I thought was outstanding.


First, I finished off Pachinko, Min Jin Lee’s saga of a Korean family in Japan, which spans most of the twentieth century. In many ways, it felt familiar – a multi-generational story with fairly broad-brush characterisation that focuses on engaging the reader’s emotion through a series of hardships and tragedies. However, Lee has the knack of writing irresistibly readable prose, and her light handling of the complicated history of an oppressed minority compared favourably to the more indigestible lumps in Charmaine Craig’s Miss Burma. Unlike Craig, Lee also knows when to fast-forward and when to linger; Pachinko can hop years in a page or spend two chapters on a single day, but never feels too quick or too slow. The simple metaphor of pachinko – a kind of Japanese pinball – is both obvious and effective. The two upstanding Korean brothers at the centre of this story, Noa and Mozasu, both end up running pachinko businesses, despite their links with the criminal underworld, because of the difficulty of finding other kinds of work as Koreans in Japan. Mozasu explains how he keeps his pachinko parlour profitable: he fine-tunes the little rods in the machines at the end of every day, for shifting them only slightly to the left or right will alter the path of the ball and hence the fate of the player. In short, Lee explores how this holds true for the destinies of the human characters in her story as well.


Next, I finished Sugar Money, Jane Harris’s third novel, which is based on the true story of a group of slaves on a mission to smuggle back a group of fellow slaves from Grenada to Martinique in 1765. I liked Harris’s debut, The Observations, and loved her second, Gillespie and Ibut although Sugar Money has a number of the same virtues – most notably her facility for vivid voice – I couldn’t get on with it. Harris seems to have been so concerned with the real historical facts she’s following that she sacrifices depth for accuracy. Much of Sugar Money becomes simply this-happened-and-then-this-happened, despite the initially engaging narrative of its young narrator, Lucien. Leone Ross has an interesting take on it in the Guardianwhile I don’t agree with everything she says here (I think Harris was rightly concerned about lingering on black pain, hence her carefully limited but still hard-hitting descriptions of the horrors of slavery), it’s certainly a review worth reading.

Equally disappointing, though for very different reasons, was Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, his Pulitzer-prize winning novel about three generations of a Dominican family, set between Santo Domingo and New Jersey. Packed with slangy Spanish, Diaz’s prose is sparkily experimental, but I only really fell into the novel in the brief first-person sections that were free of footnotes, asides, or ironic sub-divisions. And while I’d been planning to read this for some time, it was unfortunate that I picked it up in the wake of reports of sexual harassment on the part of Diaz, which made me extra-alert to the misogyny evident in Diaz’s handling of his female characters, who all seem obsessed with their own bodies.


I picked up Pages for You, Sylvia Brownrigg’s 2001 novel about a love affair between two women, after reading the coverage of its more recent follow-up, Pages for Her. This would have felt ground-breaking to me as a fourteen-year-old in 2001, but now feels frustratingly cliched. I found myself scribbling a list of irritated questions as I raced through that apply to far too many novels about women who are sexually attracted to each other:

  • Why are one or both of the women usually young/at university/lacking agency?
  • Why always presented as accidental desire rather than as part of an identity? ‘I did it because I want her’ rather than ‘I did it because of who I am’?
  • Why always heightened and erotic? Why not about ordinary life, taking out the bins, etc.?
  • Why always about realisation rather than familiarity [wrt sexual identity]?
  • Why do they have to be original and bohemian?
  • Why does it always have to end badly?
  • Why do they always end up going back to men? [This is not a complaint about women who are explicitly presented as bisexual in the course of the novel, but about women who seem to be lesbians and yet refuse to use the word or to exclusively pursue relationships with women.]

In the case of Pages for You, I also felt uncomfortable with the unquestioning depiction of a relationship between an university tutor and a student, something which hasn’t aged well.


However, The Western Wind, Samantha Harvey’s fourth novel, was a fantastic way to finish my holiday reading, and appropriately atmospheric when surrounded by medieval architecture. Having read Dear ThiefI knew Harvey was an incredible prose writer, but here she demonstrates a breadth that goes beyond the relatively narrow confines of her previous novel (much as I loved it). The Western Wind, set in the small Somerset village of Oakham in 1491, is narrated by the local priest, John Reve. The novel opens with the confirmation of the death of one of the most prominent villagers, Thomas Newman: a man respected by his fellows as a wealthy benefactor, but who recently returned from a trip to Rome with new and strange ideas about religion. When the dean swoops in to investigate Newman’s death, Reve realises that to protect his flock he will have to find some answers of his own. Was Newman murdered? Did he fall in by accident, mirroring the fate of the last bridge that was supposed to connect Oakham to the outside world? Or – despite the stakes for his immortal soul – could he have committed suicide?

The Western Wind is especially impressive in its handling of time. The novel, like Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch, moves backwards; we start on the fourth day, when Newman’s abandoned shirt is discovered, and finish on the first day, when Newman is still alive. Harvey handles this incredibly well; the closer time frame means she has to be even cleverer than Waters to avoid unnecessary repetition and confusion, and she pulls it off with consistent grace, making brilliant use of seemingly throwaway details. The cold goose fat in Reve’s fireplace on the fourth day becomes a goose unhappily devoured on the third; milk trickling between cobbles on the third day becomes a milk-cart upset on the second. However, I think it would be a mistake to think of the book’s structure as linear in either direction. As the repeating chapter titles indicate, Harvey is exploring the different ways in which these late medieval villagers might have thought of time; it’s also circular, with each season leading to the next and the birth of Jesus leading to his death and then his birth. It’s only when the book comes full circle and we witness Reve’s last conversation with Newman that we understand what has happened. The two ends join together.

Harvey also makes adept use of the conceit of the confessional, newly introduced to Oakham at the time of Newman’s death after he brought back news of this novel practice from Rome (I’ve seen some quibbling about the accuracy of this from some readers, but it seems to me that Harvey isn’t thinking about a fixed, immovable confession-box but some form of structure in which to give confessions, rather than them being heard in public as was the previous practice.) In this limited privacy, Reve learns more about his fellow villagers than was the case before. And we too get a glimpse into a medieval village that seems entirely complete, with its own rituals and connections. Whatever the precise dating of confessionals, Harvey certainly does as well with the medieval mindset as could be expected in a modern novel, especially when exploring Reve’s faith and his fretting over Newman’s ultimate fate. For example, Reve frets over whether Newman saw St Christopher on the wall of the church before he died, as this was believed to provide some protection for the soul for those who died unshriven. The Western Wind requires some thought and time from the reader, but it definitely repays that effort.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

I’m now making a start on my 20 Books of Summer, beginning with Tade Thompson’s Rosewater and John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies. Inspired by The Western Wind, I’m also re-reading another slow and patient novel about a man with pastoral responsibility for his flock, albeit almost four hundred years later; Peter Hobbs’s The Short Day Dyingnarrated by a Methodist lay-preacher. And I’ll have to find time to read my book group’s choice for June, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks!

2018 Reading Plans


At a work event in December.

Most of 2016 wasn’t great for me, and it ended especially badly. 2017 has still been difficult, but overall a lot better. I finished my new novel and submitted it to literary agents; signed a contract for my first academic book with Manchester University Press; got a new (temporary) job at Durham University; and received a three-year research fellowship to follow on from this job at Queen Mary University of London. I moved to a new city (Newcastle) and am living by myself for the first time in my life, which is suiting me pretty well. I travelled to Aviemore, Porto and the Outer Hebrides.

In unimpressive but personally satisfying goals, I learnt how to put Zombies Run on my phone, managed to get into the swing of swimming proper breaststroke (which I’ve always known how to do, but it took me some time to get over putting my face in the water) and worked out how to make my laptop play things on the TV that came with my new flat.

I have made a list of 30 books I want to read in 2018 – but excitingly, none of them are books I already own, because I’ve virtually finished my TBR pile. Obviously, I can’t write in detail about all of them here, so I’m going to feature a few 2018 releases that I’m especially excited about. If anyone’s interested, I’ve included a full list at the end of this post.

51sMhYTAA3LThe Western Wind: Samantha Harvey (March 2018). I thought Harvey’s last novel, Dear Thiefwas incredible; I’m not normally one to rave about beautiful prose, but Harvey took it to a new level, writing especially well about the ‘endless possibility’ of the past. Her latest takes a different tack; set in fifteenth-century Somerset, it kicks off with a man being swept away by the river. Was this an accident, or was he murdered? The village priest has to investigate. Writing a novel set in Britain or Europe before the 1500s, is, in my view, an exceptionally difficult challenge, but if anyone can pull it off, Harvey can.


51e8r5+-VOLRainbirds: Clarissa Goenawan (March 2018). Ren Ishida has almost finished his degree at Keio University in Tokyo when he hears that his sister Keiko has been stabbed to death in a small town outside the city. Heading to Keiko’s home, he finds himself becoming increasingly involved in the mysterious life she left behind. I usually enjoy books set in Japan, and I’m excited about this debut.



51DsZ9dxJILI Still Dream: James Smythe (April 2018). Smythe produced two of my favourite pieces of science fiction with the first two books in his Anomaly Quartet, The Explorer and The EchoWhile I wish this was the third instalment of the quarter, I’m still excited about this stand-alone. Seventeen-year-old Laura has invented a rudimentary piece of AI called Organon. As it grows with her, it develops beyond what she could have imagined – and might offer new hope to the world.



51Cwi2guG9LThe One Who Wrote Destiny: Nikesh Shukla (April 2018). Like many readers, I heard about Shukla’s work through his fantastic edited collection The Good Immigrant and his more recent projects for a literary agency and a journal to showcase the work of writers of colour and other under-represented groups. However, I’ve never read any of his own novels. His new book looks at three generations of the same family who started off in Kenya and moved to Keighley.



51s+CweMwFLYou Think It, I’ll Say It: Curtis Sittenfeld (May 2018). While I hated Sittenfeld’s retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Eligible, I’ve loved everything else she’s written (my reviews of Prep and Sisterland are on my old blog), and I’m keen to read this new collection of short stories. It includes what looks like a taster from Sittenfeld’s upcoming novel about Hillary Clinton, which I’m very excited about, as I loved American Wife, her fictionalised version of the life of Laura Bush.



51hhopbWF+L._SY346_The Female Persuasion: Meg Wolitzer (June 2018). Greer is drawn into feminist activism as a Massachusetts college student when she meets feminist icon Faith Frank, taking her along a very different path from the one she’d imagined. At first, I’d thought this novel was set during the second-wave feminist movement, but it seems to be fairly contemporary, which is a shame, as second-wave feminism deserves more (recent) novels. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued to read a novel that hopefully treats feminist campaigning and organisation seriously, even if I found Wolitzer’s The Interestings disappointing.

51z5hoFPfiLHold: Michael Donkor (July 2018). This debut moves between Ghana and London, focusing on rebellious South London teenager Amma whose Ghanian parents bring house girl Belinda over from Kumasi to set her a good example. When Amma and Belinda develop an unexpected friendship, both their lives are changed forever. It promises to deal with themes of sexuality, identity and sacrifice.



That’s it for now! I’m starting 2018 as I mean to go on: I took part in Sheffield’s 5K parkrun in Graves Park this morning, and planning to meditate, read and work on the edits for my novel for the rest of the day, then watch The Great Festive Bake Off with my mum this evening as a reward.


The Rest of the List

Conversations with Friends: Sally Rooney

Manhattan Beach: Jennifer Egan

Little Fires Everywhere: Celeste Ng

American War: Omar El Akhad

Elmet: Fiona Mozley

Bystanders: Tara Laskowski

Negroland: Margo Jefferson

Attrib.: Eley Williams

Universal Harvester: John Darnielle

Solar Bones: Mike McCormack

How To Survive A Plague: David France

The Lucky Ones: Julianne Pachico

Sing, Unburied, Sing: Jesmyn Ward

Sophia of Silicon Valley: Anna Yen

The Rift: Nina Allan

Borne: Jeff Vandermeer

2084: George Sandison ed.

The Other Half of Happiness: Ayisha Malik

Lullaby: Leila Slimani

Melmoth: Sarah Perry

The Gloaming: Kirsty Logan

The Upstairs Room: Kate Murray-Browne

Seeking a better past: Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures


The Tudors (2007-10)

History is about the probable, whereas historical fiction is about the possible. Or is this too tidy? In the fourth of her Reith lectures [1], Hilary Mantel spoke about the problems that can be created when historical fiction diverges from historical fact, citing the decision of the writers of the TV series The Tudors to combine Henry VIII’s two sisters into a single character. ‘The writers have eaten the future,‘ she said, pointing out that this not only made little historical sense of the remaining sister’s life (and led to the deletion of Mary Queen of Scots!) but obscured the fascinating stories of these two women. ‘The reason you must stick by the truth,’ she argued, addressing the historical novelist, ‘is that it is better, stranger, stronger than anything you can make up.’ Why, though, is this the case? The subtext in Mantel’s words is that writers are likely otherwise to resort to cliche; the truth is better not simply because it is true (and Mantel makes it clear throughout the Reith lectures that she is healthily sceptical of historical ‘truths’) but because it is more interesting. It challenges our assumptions. In other words, it is better to think with.

Hence, it’s not surprising that Mantel also notes throughout these lectures that one of the key jobs of the historical novelist is to explore the difference of the past, and not ‘distort’ historical characters into ‘versions of ourselves’, as tempting as it might be to seek our own faces and voices in the past. ‘A good novelist will have her characters operating within the ethical framework of their day – even if it shocks her readers,’ she notes. Why is this important? In the questions following her third lecture, Mantel expanded. When asked: ‘Isn’t the power of history… because the story is that things were different before and can be different again?’ she replied, ‘I think you’ve nailed it. History, the study of history, is a revolutionary study. If things were not always as they are now, they could be different in the future. They could be better.’


Pride (2014)

As an historian of twentieth-century Britain who is also working on two historical novels (neither of which is set in twentieth-century Britain) I think what Mantel says here is absolutely right. Historical fiction should not use history simply as window-dressing. There must be a reason for your story to be set in the past, and – unless you are writing something for pure entertainment – that reason should not be solely because you wanted to put your characters into the midst of an exciting battle or interesting political event, but because there was something about the way things worked back then that you want to explore. It’s even less impressive, as Mantel also argues, to use the past as a useful supply of historical horrors to demonstrate how far we’ve come. To give some quick examples from twentieth-century British history, this is why I’ve never been a fan of the films Suffragette (2015) or Made in Dagenham (2010), because they don’t open up that imaginative space; they both present a world in which things were Bad Back Then (no votes for women, no equal pay) but are Better Now (Made in Dagenham conspicuously fails to mention the continuing gender pay gap in its historical update at the end).  In contrast, and regardless of how historically ‘accurate’ any of these films are, Pride (2014), on the story of the 1980s campaign Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, is a much better piece of historical fiction, because it at least confounds some of our expectations about class, sexuality and solidarity.


Pieter Brugel the Elder, Children’s Games, c.1560.

However, Mantel’s assertions about difference are interesting precisely because many historians have spent much time emphasising that people in the past were not as different as we used to think. To take an example: I’m currently writing a semi-historical novel set in fourteenth-century Cambridgeshire, provisionally entitled A Minute’s Grace. (This novel is only ‘semi-historical’ because it’s a time travel novel, but still.) As I was aware before beginning this novel, a lot of work on medieval and early modern mindsets over the last few decades has been dedicated to squashing myths about absolute difference. Pre-modern people did love their children, despite high infant mortality. Furthermore, they had both a concept of childhood and a concept of youth. They probably had an internal sense of self. This myth-squashing extends to the kind of details that are the most fun for the novelist to play with. Pre-modern people – as Mantel notes – were much cleaner than we believe. Medieval England was not covered in forest. Therefore, as much as an historian-turned-novelist might subscribe to the idea that historical novels should be about difference, research can leave you running up against similarities. And, depending on the stories that we tell about that bit of the past, this can be just as surprising to the reader.

I’ve started to think that one thing historical novelists can usefully do is to engage with popular ideas about the past, rather than history itself (although I totally agree with Mantel when she says that historical fiction and history complement each other). This can be in the pursuit of emphasising ‘sameness’ as well as ‘difference’, if this upsets comfortable ideas about history. Sarah Perry has written about how much she relished presenting women’s social activism in late nineteenth-century Britain in her novel The Essex Serpent (2016), challenging ideas about passive Victorian ladies. In my own fiction, I’m aware there are dominant stories that we tell about the English medieval past that need to be challenged, even though one could theoretically write a fully ‘accurate’ English medieval historical novel without troubling these narratives. For example, inspired by the work of MedievalPOC, Our Migration Story, and the historian Dr Caitlin Green, I wanted to write about a medieval fenland where people of colour are present, even though the story I’m telling isn’t ‘about’ race or ethnicity. In simple statistical terms, the presence of such characters in the particular bit of Cambridgeshire I’m writing about isn’t necessarily probable. But is it possible? Yes. That’s the space in which fiction is written.

I’ll be saying more about story structure and its problems for both historians and novelists in my paper at the Creative Histories conference at the University of Bristol on Thursday July 20th. This blog has been cross-posted on Storying the Past.

[1] Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures, plus transcripts, can all be found here.