The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal and Matthew Hyde (translator)

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The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal and Matthew Hyde (translator)

Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Atmospheric, but also highly esoteric – this strange historical fiction may be highly thought of, but only by a few.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 288 Date: January 2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
ISBN: 9781782271741

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Meet Laurentius. He's a scholar newly arrived in Estonia in the seventeenth century, aiming to study more. But things aren't going well for him – a long-standing illness seems to be returning, the weather and roads are awful, he's late – and his only friend, a parakeet, won't even survive the first two days ashore. He's entering a weird world, what's more – one imbued with evil smells, peopled by strange characters with stranger ideas. Can his modern ideas, and thinking about the soul, bear him through his course?

This is a rum affair, and no mistake. If you've read fantasy from the likes of Jesse Bullington and admired it for being set in mediaeval Europe, then don't come here expecting anything quite so genre-based. True, there are things from folklore here, in amongst the historical fiction writing that reminded me of a very different book, but this is trying to evoke a man of knowledge – and a rarefied, historically accurate knowledge. So he wonders about the nature of the body when he enters a carriage, ponders the soul, and feeds what he's experiencing through the things the classical texts have taught him, not least of which is the ever-present black bile he feels keeping him feverish and poorly.

But I'm quite sure that without the fantasy that's of a very minor appeal. And I can see other reasons for potential readers to dismiss this. For one, there are very few named characters, leaving a lot of the weight of the book on Laurentius' shoulders, and for an approximation of a hero he does very little. Beyond glossing over his success at initial, day-to-day needs, like buying bedding and firewood, the book is very woolly about what he actually wants. Yes, he wants to succeed at university, but any flick through at the chapter titles lets us know we're only looking at one week in his life, so that won't drive the story. And Laurentius, being quite a reactive character, won't drive it far either.

So we're left with glimpses of other books – a smidgen of a dark fantasy involving executioners, a soupcon of local legend, drops that take us out of the third person to other styles – to shore up the narrative drive. Don't get me completely wrong – a lot of the book could have been a lot worse; certainly the research is actually worn quite lightly, and the author must have had to delve into several books to find out what Laurentius' professors would have been teaching at those times. I could see it being shelved next to Eco's The Name of the Rose for its historical erudition. But for all that the book just didn't go far enough for me. It remained a postcard from a lost time, a snapshot of a small corner of Europe (and an outpost of the Swedish empire at the time, no less) long ignored by the fiction that generally comes our way. But however glossy a postcard may be, I'd prefer a fuller-plotted novel to read.

That other, very different read I alluded to, in the clash of historical fiction and folklore? I was thinking of To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey.

Buy The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal and Matthew Hyde (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal and Matthew Hyde (translator) at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal and Matthew Hyde (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal and Matthew Hyde (translator) at Amazon.com.


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