No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, September 01, 2005

#77: Blood Feud -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Another Sutcliff reread. I first read this book fairly recently -- I remember buying it in Greenwich Market -- and yet I didn't recall it very clearly at all. Set in the late 10th century, it's the tale of Jestyn, a Cornish farm-boy who's captured by a stray Viking band and sold in the slave-market in Dublin to another Viking, Thormod, who's almost the same age. Jestyn saves Thormod's life, Thormod frees him: and that might be story enough, but it's only scene-setting. Thormod takes Jestyn back to Norway with him, where the two become embroiled in a blood-feud that takes them all the way to Byzantium, via Kiev and Thrace.

Unusually for Rosemary Sutcliff, this is a first-person narrative: Jestyn's an old man writing his memoirs, remembering first friendship and first love. By writing in the first person, Sutcliff can concentrate on the sort of irrelevant details that stick in the memory: looking over a Viking ship that's about to be brought out of winter storage, Jestyn remembers not the ship but the silvery light reflected from the rippling river. His memories are studded with two kinds of images that I'm coming to associate very strongly with Sutcliff: flame as flowers, flowers as flame. (A lit lamp burns like a bright new crocus: fig-leaves are like green flames on the branch: a spray of blossom is like winter stars.) The prose is evocative and simple and somehow timeless (to the extent that the word 'crazy' really jarred, though it's probably no more of an anachronism than half a hundred others) and shows a quiet attention to detail -- especially the detail of the natural world -- that I envy.

This novel is also a love story: I don't mean the mutual respect that develops between crippled Jestyn and Alexia, the physician's daughter, but the love between Jestyn and Thormod. It's not sexual love, though Sutcliff doesn't take pains to rule this out, as Mary Renault does in The King Must Die: she simply doesn't go there. That element is irrelevant (never mind Alexia's telling remark, 'For you, also, there was a Patroclus). This is the love of two good friends, based on loyalty and affection and a sense of equality that belies the origins of their association.

The edition I own is a TV tie-in: I'd like to see the TV series (made by Thames TV in 1990) but I can't imagine it doing justice to the story.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

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