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

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

2015/10: Meadowland -- Tom Holt

Home’s such a bloody delicate thing, one slight change or one thing missing and it’s screwed up for ever; and a man’s better off blind or missing a hand or a leg than being away from his home. Greeks I’ve talked to since I’ve been here, they think we Icelanders are soft because the most a court of law can do to you back home is make you an outlaw, so you’ve got to leave your house and move away to another part of the country, or overseas. Soft; I don’t think so. I think it’s the cruellest thing you can do. I mean, everybody dies sooner or later, but having to live in the wrong place, in a place that’s not meant for you to be in - that’s cruel. And I never even did anything wrong. [loc.5957]

It's 1037, and John Stethatus, an elderly Byzantine civil servant, finds himself stranded in the mountains with a great deal of gold and a trio of Varangian guards: Kari, Eyvind and young Harald. Kari and Eyvind are veterans, and they regale the company with their stories of the Viking colonisation of Vinland. ("It’s not Wineland, it’s Meadowland.’ Easy mistake to make, of course, specially for an Easterner, with an accent. See, in our language, it’s almost the same word: vinland. Only, if it means ‘wine’ it’s pronounced vin, but if it’s ‘meadow’ it’s more like veen." [loc.3494])

Readers of K. J. Parker will recognise some tropes here: grumbling veterans, the minutiae of everyday life (hey, now I know how to clean a chainmail shirt), strong but shrewish women, unreliable -- or possibly just misguided / thick-skinned -- narrators, the general air of neglect and brokenness around failing settlements, the odd hint that something vaguely weird, or fated, is going on ...

Holt's version of the two surviving Vinland sagas (Eiríks saga rauða and Grænlendinga saga) is a tale beset by ill chance, poor judgement and internecine conflict. Both Kari and Eyvind -- who tell the same story, more or less, but from very different points of view -- sailed on all the voyages recounted in the sagas: Kari may have been the first person to set foot in Vinland. They describe the meeting with the skraelings and Freydis Ericksdottir's reaction to same; the feuds back in Iceland, the navigational errors, the tension between Christianity and 'the old ways': and their story convinces Stethatus that Vinland is 'a place that takes your strengths and turns them into weaknesses'. Armed with this insight, he dispenses some good advice to young Harald ...

I like Holt's writing a lot, though I dislike his treatment of female characters: still, with Freydis he does have a point, and he doesn't have much to say about the rather more likeable Gudrid (see my review of Margaret Elphinstone's The Sea Road, a novel which covers similar territory from a very different perspective). Holt's depiction of the easy discomfort of Eyvind and Kari's codependency produces some of the novel's most entertaining moments: and his knack for crafting apt similes ('asking a tricky question’s just like splitting timber. You tap the nose of your wedge into a little thin shake in the wood') is impressive. That said, Meadowland is really just a novelisation of the sagas, wrapped in a comic frame. I think I prefer Holt's historical work when it's prefixed pseudo-.

No comments:

Post a Comment