Tristan Hart, precociously talented student of medicine practising under the legendary Dr William Hunter. His obsession is the nature of pain and preventing it; the relationship between mind and matter and the existence of God. A product of the Age of Enlightenment, he is a rational man on a quest to cut through darkness and superstition with the brilliant blade of science.
Tristan Hart, madman and deviant. His obsession is the nature of pain, and causing it. A product of an age of faeries and goblins, gnomes and shape-shifting gypsies, he is on a quest to arouse the perfect scream and slay the daemon Raw Head who torments his dark days and long nights.
Troubled visionary, twisted genius, loving sadist. What is real and what imagined in Tristan Hart’s brutal, beautiful, complex world?
The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is definitely something different. It’s a dark and twisted tale that leaves the reader both uncomfortable and fascinated. Wolf makes some interesting stylistic choices that might be hard for people to overlook, as they can be quite alienating if one isn’t prepared for them. However, I hope that people do look past these challenges, because beyond the presentation there is a tale worth reading and some interesting questions to ponder.
What are the stylistic choices that might flummox people? First and most obviously, there’s the grammar, spelling, and capitalization. Wolf uses a form of these elements that imitates the mode of 18th century novels, harkening back to Fielding, Sterne, Smollett to name but a few. It could almost be a pastiche of the early English novel, but for the fact that it handles subject matter and contains language that the previously named authors wouldn’t have dreamt of using in a novel. For a modern reader the excessive use of capital letters – which is actually similar to the use of capitals in modern German – and the use of declined pronouns (such as mine own) and the strange, rather random spellings of words might be somewhat off-putting. The imitation of the classic 18th century English novel also causes the book to have somewhat of a meandering feel, which is due to the narrative no clearly delineated plot; the book follows Tristan’s life from childhood to adulthood and there isn’t a clear formula to the story, such as a mystery, a romance, or a crime to solve. A familiarity with 18th century literature will definitely help in appreciating what the author does and will also decrease the barrier of the old fangled way of capitalizing the text.
The other stylistic choice that might be a hurdle for people is the fact that Wolf tells his story through the lens of a spectacularly unreliable narrator. Our protagonist, and narrator, is Tristan Hart. The eldest son of a humble country squire, Tristan grows up quite privileged and at the same time rather lonely. Having lost his mother at quite young age, Tristan is allowed to run rather wild as in his grief his father largely retreats from his children emotionally. His best friend and closest companion is Nathaniel, the eldest son of the parish rector, Reverend Ravenscroft. Nathaniel is handsome and charismatic and is everything Tristan isn’t. At the same time, there is also something sinister about Nathaniel, who is not good or well-behaved and always lets other people bear the consequences of his misbehaviour. Tristan takes many of his cues from Nathaniel, whom he idolizes, and it’s no surprise that Tristan grows up to be a thoroughly unlikeable brat. He’s also quite intellectually gifted and fixates on medicine as his field of study as quite a young boy. It is here that his disturbing nature first rears its ugly head. He is rather cold-blooded in his anatomical investigations of the local wild life. When he reaches puberty he has his first episode of madness. What this episode is never becomes exceedingly clear, but it resembles a schizophrenic break. Through all of this runs the thread of Tristan’s connection to Nathaniel, the escalation of his sadistic tendencies, and the folk tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones. All of this ties into Tristan’s mental imbalance and lends many of the things he narrates an air of ambiguity as it’s unclear whether the reality Tristan perceives is actually real or just a delusion. Wolf plays with this theme, leading the reader down the wrong path several times only to find Tristan is delusional or for the people surrounding Tristan to realise that he was actually telling the truth and not hallucinating. It makes the narrative a delicious puzzle and leads to several aha-moments when you realise that Wolf has yet again managed to make you doubt yourself and Tristan. Despite Tristan being an unlikeable character, this doesn’t mean he’s unsympathetic. He’s most definitely not. In fact, especially during his lucid period London, I really was hoping he’d make a happy life for himself. And once he meets Katherine, he seems to have met his soul mate and someone who complements him in every way.
The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is an exquisite exploration of madness, it’s distortion of a person’s perceptions, of sadism, masochism, and other behaviour generally thought deviant then in a time where polite society and appearances were everything. How does the knowledge of someone’s mental problems affect our perceptions of them? In truth, once his friends, Erasmus and Lt. Simmins, discover Tristan’s madness, they do treat him differently. The book is also a fascinating look at the Age of Enlightenment and its effects on people’s psyches as they struggled with moving from a wholly religious viewpoint to a rational and scientific way of looking at life. A development that was strongly mirrored in the evolution of early medicine. Like Tristan’s mentor in the book William Hunter, and his brother John, the medical men in the Age of Enlightenment or Reason went from the traditional humour-based Galenic medicine to a more evidence-based, modern form of medical practice and it did so at an astonishing rate. However some of the hypotheses put forward by Men of Science at the time must have been highly disconcerting for non-scientists, much like Galileo’s theories about astronomy or Darwin’s much later theory of evolution were thought blasphemous and wrong by their contemporaries. Wolf includes some of the more prominent figures of 18th century British history, such as William Hunter and Henry and John Fielding and Henry’s second wife Mary, in his narrative as well as some well-known London locales, such as St. Thomas’s Hospital and S. Bartolomew’s Hospital or Hunter’s Anatomical Theatre. But he not only includes historical references in his book, there are also many literary references. Most prominent of which is of course the tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones itself, but also the name his gypsy enchantress gives him, Viviane. Viviane carries with it lots of Arthurian connotations as she is not just the enchantress who entraps the Merlin in an oak, she is also associated with madness. Another is the name Tristan gives Viviane, Caligula, the Roman emperor known for his cruelty and insanity. This is of course a playful acknowledgement by Tristan of his own nature. Tristan’s true name, Tristan is also Arthurian in association and of course can also be seen as a nod to one of the most quintessential 18th century novels, Tristam Shandy. In addition, there are the folkish superstitions that Squire Hart’s housekeeper holds and these are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
Jack Wolf’s The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones makes for a fascinating tale and if you can get past the stylistic choices, this is a book that despite its heft reads easily and quickly. It’s a book that I can see being taught in literature courses in the future as it’s not only a great commentary on the 18th century novel, Wolf also uses lots of imagery and symbolism and discusses themes that are relevant to today even if they are clothed in period costume. The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones was an unexpected pleasure and I hope many more people will discover this powerful debut.
A Fantastical Librarian is the penultimate stop on this blog tour. Please visit the other stops for different views on the book, giveaways and a guest post from the author.
April 1st: Bibliophilia, Please
April 3rd: Unabridged Chick
April 4th: The Feminist Texican [Reads]
April 10th: Mindful Musings
April 11th: Wag the Fox – author guest post
April 16th: In Bed with Books
April 17th: Reviews by Elizabeth A. White
April 22nd: More Than Just Magic
April 24th: Giraffe Days
April 25th: Bookish Ardour
April 29th: A Reader of Fictions
May 1st: October Country
May 3rd: Darkeva’s Dark Delights
May 6th: Let Them Read Books
May 7th: Smash Attack Reads
May 9th: A Daily Dose of R&R