Sunday, 6 April 2014

Don't Tell Me A Story: MEADOWLAND by Thomas Holt

Meadowland by Thomas Holt
This book had so much going for it. The author is a really good writer. He exhibits a few flaws when writing an historical fiction of this style, but at the heart he is really good at the art of writing none the less.

Naturally, when you start talking about flaws and faults, you have to attach an aside to that to make it clear that by flaw or fault I mean only in my personal opinion. I would never presume that something I think is a flaw would be a flaw to anybody else. My issues with the book are mine alone and may not be shared by others. 

Now, having kicked off with a negative, something I am generally loathe to do, let me speak now of these flaws and faults..

Meadowland had a fantastic start, as so many books do. Only it was not the actual writing that massacred that terrific start, it was the style of story it became.
It begins with a young Greek scholar. Stethatus who ..well..let him tell you himself, straight from the pages of Meadowland;

My name is John Stethatus. I was born in the year of Our lord 990. I live in the great city of Constantinople and serve his Imperial Majesty Constantine X, Emperor of the Romans, in the capacity of clerk to the exchequer; which means, in practice, that my world consists of a few streets, a small office, a chair and a table.
I was born in the City, have been outside it only four times, and never wish to leave it again.

And there we have him, John Stethatus. Clerk to the Exchequer, who in the year 1036 is given the burdensome task of carrying the payroll to the troops in Sicily under the protection of a handful of men from the Varangian Guard (sword for hire warriors of Scandinavian descent).
Sounds like the kind of story you like? Thinking that doesn't sound so bad? And so it doesn't. I thought so to. That part of the story was a real blast. The author writes it with humour and cleverness and I thought I'd stumbled upon an under rated treasure.
With the combination of two of my favourite things, Scandinavian warriors and adventure journey, and liberally anointed with some smart humour, I found myself wondering...Where had you been all my life, Meadowland?

Then, just when I thought it was safe to go back into the water, it turned me on my head and dumped me into a completely different tale. The journey story of John Stethatus and his Varangian offsiders changed into a storyteller tale, where the Northern men sat about a fire and told John Stethatus the story of how - together with Leif Erikson - they discovered America.

It was not the tale of these men discovering America that I found flawed - after all, the subtitle of the book is A Novel of the Viking discovery of America - it was the fact that stories within stories is one of my least favourite book styles, especially when done in this way. If someone is going to do it, then they should do it in the first person narration style of, for example, Bernard Cornwell's Saxon series, Christian Cameron's Ill-Made Knight. A narration that has the main character retelling the story of their life from the beginning.
Meadowland was not like that. You spend the first chapters getting to know the Greek clerk and his Scandinavian guards. You enjoy their humour, their camaraderie. You find yourself excited for their journey and wonder (at least I did) on how they will get so off track from their mission to Sicily, that they will end up pushing ashore in the wilds of America.
But they don't get off track. What they do is get off their cart and sit by a fire and then tell the story in a broken up, disjointed manner instead.

I was bitterly disappointed. BITTERLY!

As a novel, it was not bad. It lost my interest when it changed styles and I struggled to read it after a while, but over all it was not bad.
The writing does get modern from time to time and I was uncomfortable with that, as I always am when it comes to historical fiction. Felt the author was sometimes deliberately just writing in his own language because he did not always desire to write in a neutral way. But the humour kept me in there. Sometimes so subtle that if you aren't concentrating you will miss it, it was this author's greatest asset.
For example. Page 83:

No, that's fine,” Eyvind said. “I could do with a breath of air.” he sighed, then turned back to me. “One thing,” he said. “You may've noticed, we Northerners like to give each other nicknames. Mostly it's because we're an unimaginative bunch when it comes to our regular names. We haven't got many to choose from, and most of the ones we've got begin with Thor-. When four of your neighbours are called Thorstein and the fifth is Thorgils and the sixth is Thorbjorn, it's a damn sight easier to say Red or Fats of Flatnose. Well, that was the occasion on which I got my nickname, and I've been Bare-arsed Eyvind ever since. I just thought I'd mention it,” he added, “in case one of the others uses it, and you're wondering who they're talking about.”
Then he ducked his head under the low doorway and went out.

It is hard to inject genuine and subtle humour into one's writing and Thomas Holt does it with great success. I see he writes dark comedy novels under the name Tom Holt. I can see him doing that and I expect they would be funny stories if this book is anything to go on.

I would try this author again. No shadow of a doubt. While his storytelling style was no favourite of mine, his writing did quite charm me.

- MM

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