In 2013, Nicola Griffith published “Hild,” a novel exploring the early life of St. Hild of Whitby (614-80). It was a masterpiece of immersion, building its seventh-century setting stitch by stitch through Griffith’s close scrutiny of work and weather, language and literature, women and war.
Spanning 14 years in over 500 pages, from Hild’s earliest memory to her marriage at 18, the book always suggested a sequel. Hild lived to be 66, and is most famous for founding what would become Whitby Abbey, one of the most important religious institutions in early medieval Britain. She hosted the Synod of Whitby, a landmark summit that reshaped Christian practice in the country and, among other things, determined the date of Easter. With many accomplishments still ahead of her, at least one follow-up to “Hild” seemed plausible.
Ten years later, that sequel is here. “Menewood” is, according to the ad copy, “bigger, bolder, bloodier” than its predecessor. It certainly is bigger, but also much narrower in scope: In 700 pages, it covers only four more years of Hild’s life, bookending them with two world-altering battles. But I’m confident that if you loved “Hild,” you’ll love “Menewood”; the decade between them may as well have been a comma in a sentence. “Menewood” is everything “Hild” was in terms of prose craft, depth of research and immensity of feeling.
In the first book, Hild lives by her ambitious mother’s tenet of “quiet mouth, bright mind,” and through careful observation of birds, seasons and people, gains a reputation for uncanny foresight and becomes a pagan king’s seer. She quickly learns to navigate court politics, new religion, ethnic and territorial conflicts, all to make a safe place for herself and her loved ones.
That place is Menewood, a secret valley Hild intends as a bolt-hole for her family and dependents, a last defense against the vicious volatility of petty kings. In this second book, disaster arrives in the form of winter war, and Menewood becomes the place from which Hild will rebuild her world and mend herself and her people.
Like “Hild,” “Menewood” is a novel of relationships: Facing bloody violence and the threat of starvation, Hild tends her connections like staple crops. But among her most load-bearing relationships — with her mother; her best friend, Begu; her servant, Gwladus — is her bond with the landscape. Hild always seems to see with three eyes at once — what was, what is, what will be — without looking at anything but the ordinary cycles of life:
The wood throstle laid a second lot of eggs in the holly tree just as they planted onion seeds to grow sets for next year. The throstle eggs hatched just as the children began to lose their war with the munching caterpillars and the aphids were laying their eggs, and, while the male churred over the nestlings, the female picked every tasty many-legged morsel from the tender greenery.
Given the long wait since the first novel, I was astonished by how little I needed to consult “Hild” for “Menewood” to be comprehensible and enjoyable. Besides the helpful positioning offered by maps, family trees, a glossary and an author’s note, these books are like garments cut from the same patterned cloth: You can always trace the whole image regardless of where you are in Hild’s life. While the novel teems with the granular detail of Griffith’s research, it reads with the easy grace of epic recitation. Griffith’s prose shifts its raiment as Hild does, from jeweled finery to the saddle sway of sword and shield, never affected, always emerging from the circumstance it describes, offering up lines like “riding north to the redcrest road over the moor before winter’s bitter cold bit too hard for man or beast.”
Reading “Menewood” is like opening a door and stepping into another world, one that’s cool and wet, green and gray, full of birds and trees, valleys and hilltops, rivers and seas. There’s dreadful violence, yes, and hunger, profound loss; there’s wearying work, but also bristling energy, fierce joy. There’s Hild, still, at the heart of it all, figuring herself out in the vast and rippling pattern around her. “Menewood” doesn’t feel like a sequel so much as the same book, the same life, spooling a little farther along its path. While I hope not to have to wait another 10 years for another volume, I trust that it would be worth it.
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