The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf

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The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Stevens
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Summary: A dark, visceral and dangerously compelling new twist on an eighteenth century Gothic novel. Raw bloody enjoyment.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: January 2013
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
ISBN: 9780701186876

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It doesn’t take long for Jack Wolf’s extraordinary pastiche eighteenth century novel The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones to show its true stripes. Narrator Tristan Hart’s best friend Nathanial is handsome, charming and athletic, and also prone to ‘snatching blue Tits from the Hedges, and consuming them direct upon the Spot.’ In that phrase you see both the heart-stopping nastiness that pulses through Raw Head and Bloody Bones and the fascinating attitude to Gothic duality that lies at its core.

The double is a concept that’s used in most Gothic novels. It’s normal for the troubled narrator to have an evil side to his character, or an actual evil twin – think Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Essentially alike but morally opposed, the two forces must battle for dominance, usually with distressing results. It’s extremely usual, though, for good and evil to be evenly distributed on each side of the divide – but that’s what happens in Raw Head and Bloody Bones. Characters can be wickedly magnetic, both bad and admirable. Nathanial’s not – obviously – the good angel to Tristan’s bad, but neither is Tristan the light side to Nathanial’s dark force. Normal Gothic conventions don’t work here.

Tristan believes that half of his nature is evil, an alter ego which he identifies with the folk monster Bloody Bones. Readers familiar with the Gothic will expect him to play the anti-hero role by blacking out and waking up to discover that he’s been torturing prostitutes and beating up random people in the street. But that doesn’t happen. Both halves of Tristan contain evil and both halves contain good. When he’s in Bloody Bones mode he’s often dubious about what he’s doing, trying to lessen the injuries he inflicts or debate the morality of his desires, and in his more virtuous, non-hallucinatory moments he’s still tormented by the need to cause pain. The reader is forced to wonder not whether Tristan is good or evil, but what good and evil actually mean. Can a self-confessed monster ever be a positive force?

But, of course, Tristan is not just opposed to himself. As the lunatic Bloody Bones, he’s constantly seeking his opponent and other half, the Raw Head figure who he believes is to blame for everything that goes wrong in his life. Alongside the Enlightenment narrative of Tristan’s quest to become a London doctor runs a tale of dark superstition, playing out in a parallel universe where sharp-toothed fairies lurk, ready to bewitch the unwary and steal away their souls. Raw Head is their Goblin Knight, and Tristan knows, just as he knows that the metacarpals are connected to the phalanges, that Raw Head is out to get him.

But is Raw Head even real? Does the fairy host Tristan fears actually exist? Is he mad, is it all a metaphor or does Tristan actually have to battle against supernatural forces to protect himself and the people he loves? There’s a blazingly intelligent narrative force at work here. Things can exist on two levels at once, and it’s down to the reader to choose which thread to follow as the truth.

The world of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is immersive, and that’s partly because of the style it’s written in. Wolf’s commitment to the eighteenth century is absolute, down to the authentic spelling and capitalisation of his prose. But the content itself is just as rich and mad as its packaging. The eighteenth century of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is drawn with bold, believable strokes – warts, dirt, bawdy songs and all.

There’s a current fad for putting filth back into historical fiction. Andrew Miller’s Pure, Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, and Sarah Waters’s Tipping the Velvet have all pastiched the fiction of their chosen era with added naughty bits. Jack Wolf is the latest example of this trend, but in Raw Head and Bloody Bones he goes further than any of them. As we follow Tristan in his pursuit of pain we’re treated to the kind of elaborately-described BDSM scenes that will have the average reader of Fifty Shades of Grey running for the hills in panic. This isn’t just people messing about with whips made out of ties. Blood flows, bones crack and some readers will (with good reason) find it all deeply upsetting. However, like his take on the concept of Gothic double, I felt that Wolf dealt with his questionable themes with admirable thoughtfulness. Tristan’s actions are heavily morally dubious, and they’re always treated that way. To really experience the ride Raw Head and Bloody Bones takes you on, you have to maintain a real sense of ambivalence about its contents. Are you enjoying it? And if you are (as I was), should you be?

At the end of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, you’ll be left with a lot of questions about both the story you’ve just read and its morals. But if you’re like me, you’ll also be left with a profound desire to dive back in and do the whole thing again. It’s a rich concept, dark, twisty and fabulously well executed. True, it’s also extremely nasty, but there’s something gorgeous about Raw Head and Bloody Bones’s particular brand of filth. Read this, and you’ll be troubled by how much you want more.

Like your history grim? You might want to try Pure by Andrew Miller

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