Monday, 30 June 2014

Meet my Main Character: a Quixotic 16th Century Priest

I am taking a break from my "History of the World" series, because I have been tagged by my fellow author, Jane Bwye, to take part in the "Main Characters" blog hop, the idea being that we each introduce a protagonist from a published or soon to be published novel. I am about to start work on the final editing of my third novel, Omphalos, and, since the novel will comprise six interwoven stories (set, respectively, in the present day, the Second World War, the 18th Century, the 16th Century, the 12th Century and in prehistoric times) and eight protagonists, I had a choice to make. I have decided, therefore, to focus on Richard Mabon, the 16th Century protagonist of my story, "Jerusalem." Each author participating in the blog hop is asked to address seven questions about their chosen protagonist.

A monk, priest, deacon and acolyte. 16th Century woodcut by Tobias Stimmer (image is in the Public Domain).

1. What is the name of your character, and is he or she a fictional or a historical person?

Richard Mabon is a historical character. Born on the island of Jersey, he was ordained as a Catholic Priest, and became Rector of St Martin's Church and subsequently Dean of the island, a post he held several times between 1509 and his death in 1543.

This painting, by Hans Holbein, was once thought to be of Richard Mabon. This turns out, however, to have been a transcription error: the portrait is of Richard Mabott, another churchman of the same era. No portrait of Mabon is known to exist. Image is in the Public Domain.

Saint Martin's Church, Jersey, where Richard Mabon served as Rector. Photo: Danrok (licensed under CCA).

2. When and where is the story set?

The story is set in 1517, and follows Richard Mabon and his (fictional) secretary on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We know that Mabon did, in fact, make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem at some time between 1515 and 1520, and, by setting it in 1517, I can have him interacting with another historical pilgrim, the Norfolk priest, Richard Torkington, whose account of his pilgrimage I have read in the British Library.

The Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem (image is in the Public Domain).

The Venetian galley owners had an effective monopoly over the pilgrimage from Europe to Jerusalem, so the story begins in Venice, and follows the route of the pilgrimage by sea to Crete and Jaffa, and overland to Jerusalem, with all the dates taken directly from Torkington's account.

The symbolic "marriage" of the Doge with the sea, a ceremony which Mabon may have witnessed in Venice. Anonymous miniature of the 16th Century (image is in the Public Domain).

3. What should we know about the character?

We know, historically, that, on his return from Jerusalem, Mabon made some important modifications to a 12th Century chapel on land that he owned at La Hougue Bie. He demolished much of the eastern wall of the chapel, and inserted a crypt, styled on the Holy Sepulchre which he visited in Jerusalem.

La Hougue Bie, Jersey, showing the Chapel and Mabon's crypt above the entrance to the 6000 year old Neolithic tomb. Photo: Man Vyi (licensed under CCA).

Mabon died in 1543, before the Reformation hit the Channel Islands. Subsequent accounts portray Mabon as a contriver of false miracles (he is said to have placed a mechanically animated statue of the Virgin Mary in the crypt, which raised its arm in benediction whenever alms were presented, and to have placed candles above the statue apparently suspended in mid-air). This may be true, but it reads, to my mind, like Protestant propaganda.

Rather than depicting Mabon as the charlatan that subsequent generations claimed him to be, I thought it would be more interesting to show him as a sort of clerical Don Quixote: a man motivated by genuine piety, but born too late for that piety to be taken seriously by those around him. He is well-intentioned, but na├»ve, and frequently vain and self-important. Omphalos is, in part, a story about people who find themselves on the wrong side of history. My character's eagerness to collect relics, and his belief in his own ability to channel miracles by means of them, attracts suspicion even within the Catholic Church itself (trading in relics was an excommunicable offence by the 16th Century), but he cannot know what we know - that all of the religious certainties that he has taken for granted are about to crumble into dust.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up your character's life?

The real world can never live up to this man's expectations (even he cannot live up to his own expectations of himself). His secretary, Nicholas, is continually getting into scrapes (fighting, gambling, boozing, whoring) and, even as he calls to mind his own sins, Mabon is shocked by those of the people he is called upon to confess. Even from a distance, con men look at him and rub their hands in gleeful expectation. Bishops and priors view him with suspicion, fearing that his exaggerated claims will bring the church into disrepute.

5. What is the personal goal of your character?

Nothing more or less than enrolment in the Communion of Saints, something that we, of course, know he will never achieve.

6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

The title is Omphalos. I have written more about the novel as a whole here, and more about the "Jerusalem" story here.

7. When can we expect the book to be published?

The novel is under contract to Crooked Cat Publications, and publication is scheduled for the autumn of 2014.

I am now passing on the baton to two more authors of historical fiction:

Tim Taylor is the author of Zeus of Ithome, a novel set in Greece in the 4th Century BC.

Gaye Mack is the author of the "Flight through Time," series, set in 12th Century England.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Monday, 23 June 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 7 "The Last of the Wine," by Mary Renault

Around four hundred years after the Mycenaean collapse, trade between Greece and the urban literate civilisations of the east began to be re-established. The Greek alphabet as we now know it was borrowed from the Phoenicians, and the oral traditions of the Bronze and Iron Ages were recast as Europe's earliest written literature. Cities emerged across Greece, many of them centred on the old Mycenaean kingdoms: Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes.

The Acropolis of Athens. Photo: LennieZ (licensed under GNU).

The apogee of classical Greek civilisation was reached in the 5th Century BC, in the "Golden Age" of Athens, which lasted for less than a century (480-404 BC), yet gave the world the concept of democracy; as well as the philosophy of Plato & Aristotle; the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles & Euripides; and the comedies of Aristophanes.

Published in 1956, The Last of the Wine was Mary Renault's first historical novel set in ancient Greece (she wrote several more, including two about the mythical hero, Theseus, and two about Alexander the Great). It is narrated in the first person by Alexias, a fictional nobleman, looking back on the days of his youth. The fortunes of Athens were already beginning to ebb when Alexias was born, the city ravaged by a terrible plague and soon to be embroiled in an ultimately disastrous war with Sparta.

The Kerameikos of Athens, home to Renault's protagonist, Alexias. Photo: PAUK (licensed under CCA).

Mary Renault was ahead of her time in her sympathetic portrayal of homosexual relationships between men. The male lover of Alexias's youth is a historical character, Lysis, who features in Plato's dialogues.

Lysis, as depicted on the grave marker of his son, Timokleides. Photo: Giovanni Dall'Orto (reproduced with permission).

The Athenian cavalry, in which Alexias and Lysis both serve, participating in the parade at the Panatheneic Festival. Image: Gavin Collins (licensed under CCA).

Sex is implied, rather than explicitly described, but Renault successfully captures the emotional frisson of awakening sexuality:

" ... when I had given up hope of him, and had gone to exercise, as I turned the point of the running track I saw him watching at the other end. It was as if a great wind blew at my back and my heels grew wings. I scarcely knew that I touched the ground, and I finished so far ahead of the rest that everyone cheered me. I heard Lysis's voice, and being breathless already from running, and from suddenly seeing him, now I felt as if my heart would burst my breast, and saw black in the sky ... "

The novel is, in large part, the story of the waxing and waning of their relationship, but it is set against the background of tumultuous events which will be familiar to anyone who has read Thucydides: the Peloponnesian War; the surrender of Athens; the rule of the Thirty Tyrants; and the democratic rebellion of Thrasybulus.

Alcibiades, a significant minor character in Renault's novel. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen (image is in the Public Domain).

Plato's dialogues provided Renault with a model for the way in which elite men of the 5th Century BC might actually have spoken. A number of the characters are drawn from the dialogues themselves, and are recognisably the same people. Of the world of women, having no such model, she shows us almost nothing, and she does not demur from endowing her male characters with the prejudices evident from her model:

"Some of the women, I believe, blamed the country people for bringing in a curse; as if anyone could reasonably suppose that the gods would punish a state for treating its own citizens justly. But women, being ignorant of philosophy and logic, and fearing dream-diviners more than immortal Zeus, will always suppose that whatever causes them trouble must be wicked ...."

The Peloponnesian War was not a total war in the sense familiar to us from our own times: this much is clear from Thucydides. There was a season for fighting and a season for regrouping: Spartans and Athenians alike would starve if harvests were neglected for too long. Alexias and Lysis take part in the fighting, initially as cavalrymen, and later in the navy, but they also have time to garland themselves with hyacinths for symposia, and to debate philosophy with Socrates in the Agora. Plato himself appears as a minor character.

A symposium (male drinking party) as depicted on an Athenian vase of the 5th Century BC. Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen (reproduced with permission).

The Last of the Wine gives us a fascinating insight into what life might actually have been like for men of a certain class at a particular time and place. Underlying it all is a deep sense of melancholy: Alexias and Lysis live in the shadow of the Golden Age, but it is already collapsing around them, and there is little they can do to prevent it. They are not instinctive democrats, fearing demagogues as much as they fear tyrants. They respect the achievements of their fathers and grandfathers, but are increasingly aware of the price of these achievements (there are dark and, to my mind, prescient, whispers about the atrocities that democratic Athens has itself committed against those who resisted her rise). Even as they embark on their love affair, they know that it cannot last (love between men in 5th Century Athens was seen as a prelude to the responsibilities of marriage, family and public life). The reader understands this as a metaphor for the fate of classical Athens itself, but is drawn in to join the characters in enjoying what remains of its glow.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 6 "The Penelopiad," by Margaret Atwood

Between 2200 BC and 1600 BC, Bronze Age communities around the Aegean Sea became involved in trade networks that connected them to the literate, urbanised civilisations of Egypt and the Middle East. Some Greek traders probably visited the cities of Egypt and Mesopotamia, whilst many more may have met merchants from those cities visiting Greek ports. Europe's first indigenous civilisations emerged, at first on Crete, and later on the Greek mainland. The Mycenaean civilisation of Greece flourished until around 1100 BC, when it seems to have collapsed amid turmoil and civil war.

The written texts of the Mycenaean civilisation itself are essentially administrative records. They are vitally important historical documents, but they include nothing that can be thought of as "literature." The European literary tradition began some 350 years after the Mycenaean collapse but, crucially, the foundation stories of that tradition, telling of the Trojan War, and of the wanderings of the hero, Odysseus, appear to be set in the Mycenaean era itself, and clearly draw on earlier storytelling traditions.

Homer, the author of the Iliad and Odyssey, foundation texts of the European literary tradition. Roman copy of a lost original statue of the 2nd Century BC (British Museum). Photo: Yonidebest (image is in the Public Domain).

A Mycenaean boar-tusk helmet (National Archaeological Museum of Athens). There is an accurate description of such a helmet in Book 10 of The Odyssey. Photo: Dorieo (licensed under CCA).

Greek Geometric-style krater, possibly made during Homer's lifetime, and depicting a funeral procession similar to that for Patroclus in The Iliad (British Museum). Photo: Jonathan Gross (licensed under CCA).

Margaret Atwood's novel, The Penelopiad, is, on one level, a reworking of Homer's Odyssey, but, whereas Homer narrates from the viewpoints of Odysseus himself, and of his son, Telemachus, who goes in search of him, Atwood explores the story from the perspective of the women who remained on Odysseus's home island of Ithaca.

Rather than immersing the reader in the world of Odysseus's wife, Penelope, and her maids, Atwood prefers to keep us anchored in our own culture, where we at least aspire to equality between women and men, and in which there is nothing normal about slavery or summary execution. She therefore brings her characters into our world in spirit form, and with a full understanding of the changes that have taken place since the passing of their own time on Earth.

Depiction, believed to be of Penelope, on a gold ring of the 5th Century BC from Syria. Photo: Jastrow (image is in the Public Domain).

"Every once in a while," Atwood's Penelope tells us, "the fogs part and we get a glimpse of the world of the living. It's like rubbing the glass on a dirty window, making a space to look through. Sometimes the barrier dissolves and we can go on an outing ... it did allow us to keep up with what was going on among the still-alive. I was very interested in the invention of the light bulb, for instance, and in the matter-into-energy theories of the twentieth century ..."

Penelope tells us her own story in her own words, but it is not, in all respects, the story familiar to us. Atwood draws on ancient sources other than Homer, and imagines the life of the women's quarter of a Mycenaean palace, of which the ancient writers tell us almost nothing. She does not, however, give us definitive answers to the most obvious questions (was Penelope really as patient and faithful as we have been led to believe? Was she complicit in the bloodbath enacted by her husband and son at the end of the story?). As a narrator, her Penelope is almost as unreliable as her husband always was:

"The two of us were - by our own admission - proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It's a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said. But we did."

Which doesn't necessarily mean that we should do so!

Odysseus and Penelope, terracotta relief of c450 BC from Milo (The Louvre). Photo: Jastrow (image is in the Public Domain).

Penelope's autobiographical narrative is interrupted from time to time by the voices of her maids. These interventions are inspired by a brief (and often overlooked) passage in Book 22 of The Odyssey:

"Now when they had made an end of setting the hall in order, they led the maids forth from the stablished hall, and drove them up in a narrow space between the vaulted room and the goodly fence of the court ... [Telemachus] tied the cable of a dark-prowed ship to a great pillar and flung it around the vaulted room, and fastened it aloft, that none might touch the ground with her feet ... about all their necks nooses were cast, that they might die by the most pitiful death. And they writhed with their feet for a little space, but for no long while."

In the novel, the maids take on the role of a chorus, "burlesquing the main action" like "the satyr plays performed between serious dramas," as Atwood says in her post-script.

"Oh wily Odysseus he set out from Troy,
With his boat full of loot and his heart full of joy,
For he was Athene's own shiny-eyed boy,
With his lies and his tricks and his thieving!

... Here's a health to our captain, so gallant and free,
Whether stuck on a rock or asleep 'neath a tree,
Or rolled in the arms of some nymph of the sea,
Which is where we would all like to be, man!"

(This the maids perform as a "sea-shanty," dressed in sailor costumes).

There is much wit and humour in the cavorting of the maids, but behind it all are a number of serious points. However we gain access to the remote (or even more recent) past, whether through conventional history, or ancient literature, or even archaeology, the lives of some people are a lot more visible than those of others. Often it is fiction that is best placed to shine a light into corners that are seldom illuminated in other ways.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Friday, 13 June 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 5 "The Tale of Sinuhe"

Wandering through the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum or the Louvre, one can easily get the impression of a continuity of tradition stretching back over three thousand years. One sees the same gods, the same writing, kings and queens depicted in similar ways. This veil of continuity, however, hides a far more complex historical reality, in which dynasties waxed and waned, kings were violently overthrown, one capital made way for another, and invaders subjected the country to their will. The Old Kingdom, over which Khufu and his successors ruled, fell apart in the late third Millennium BC, and Egypt was divided in two. It was eventually reunited by Pharaoh Mentuhotep II, at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (2000-1700 BC).

The eroded pyramid of Amenemhat I, at El-Lisht, close to the Middle Kingdom capital of Itawy. Photo - Ernesto Graf (licensed under CCA).

It was the Egyptian Middle Kingdom that first gave the world the gift of written fiction, the earliest stories of any sort to endure down to our times. The Tale of Sinuhe, like the stories of the Westcar Papyrus, dates to around 1875 BC, making it around a century or so older than the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh.

Narrated in the first person, it tells the story of a nobleman's flight from Egypt following the assassination of his king, his long exile in what is, today, Syria or Lebanon, and his eventual return home. It has a circular structure, beginning and ending with formulae that would have been recognisable to any literate Egyptian of the time as tomb inscriptions, but the text between these formulae is quite unlike anything to be found on the walls of tombs:

"The Patrician and count,
Governor of the Sovereign's Domains in the Syrian lands,
The True Acquaintance of the King, whom he loves,
The Follower, Sinuhe, says,
'I was a Follower who followed his lord ... "

" ... I travelled southwards.
I did not plan to reach this Residence,
expecting strife would happen ..."

"I crossed in a rudderless barge
blown by the west wind ... "

The "Ostracon of Sinuhe," in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, on which the story is written.

There are elements of the narrative that put me in mind of The Odyssey, others that recall the Biblical stories of Joseph, of David and Goliath, but if one wishes to understand these similarities in terms of "influence," it is The Tale of Sinuhe that is the oldest, that may have been heard, and at least dimly remembered, by the tellers of tales in Israel and Greece who laid the foundations of our own literary tradition. What we have here is a window into the prehistory of fiction itself.

The Tale of Sinuhe is the shortest work on my list (under 5000 words) and, in R.B. Parkinson's English translation, it is grouped with other stories of the Middle Kingdom, including one of the stories from the Westcar Papyrus. Naguib Mahfouz has also produced a reworked version of Sinuhe's story in his collection of short stories based in ancient Egypt, Voices from the Other World.

Unlike the Westcar stories, The Tale of Sinuhe does not look back to the Old Kingdom. The Pharaohs mentioned are Middle Kingdom kings, Amenemhat I and Senusret I, who ruled not from Thebes, but from the new capital of Itawy, south of Cairo. Just as modern short stories and novels may include imagined documents, such as letters or diary entries, Sinuhe's tale includes a royal proclamation of Senusret I, summoning Sinuhe home:

"Horus Living-of-Incarnations;
Two Ladies Living-of-Incarnations;
Golden Horus Living-of-Incarnations;
Dual King Kheperkare ...
Royal Decree to the Follower, Sinuhe ...
Return to Egypt!"

Amenemhat I, from a mortuary temple at El-Lisht. Photo - John Campana (licensed under CCA).

Statue of Senusret I, depicted as the god Osiris. Photo - John Bodsworth (reproduced with permission).

Parkinson's English translation makes this fascinating literature of a remote time and place available to everyone, and wraps it around with scholarship that clarifies and explains those details that may be unfamiliar to the average modern reader. We may never know the name of the scribe who first wrote this story down, but his work deserves to be as well known as those of Homer and Hesiod.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 4 "Khufu's Wisdom," by Naguib Mahfouz

In a very few places in the world, the adoption of agriculture was followed, over a period of several millennia, by the emergence of complex societies characterised by cities, centralised power, written language and bureaucracy. In the Old World, this happened, arguably, in just three places: between the valleys of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates; along the valley of the Nile; and around the basin of China's Yellow River.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, burial place of the historical Khufu, and the construction of which is part of the background to Mahfouz's novel (image is in the Public Domain).

Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's only Nobel laureate for literature, chose the dawn of Egyptian civilisation as the setting for his 1939 debut novel, Khufu's Wisdom. It is the first of three early novels set in ancient Egypt (the others being Rhadopis of Nubia and Thebes at War), but they do not form a trilogy in the usual sense (they do not follow on directly from one another, and each has its own cast of characters). Khufu's Wisdom begins and ends with the character of Khufu himself, the Pharaoh for whom the Great Pyramid was built.

"The possessor of Divine Grandeur and Lordly Awe, Khufu, son of Khnum, reclined on his gilded couch, on the balcony of the antechamber overlooking his lush and far-flung palace garden. This paradise was immortal Memphis herself, the City of the White Walls."

Ivory statuette of Khufu (image is in the Public Domain).

What we know historically of Khufu's reign in the 26th Century BC is limited: the most frequently quoted sources were written many centuries later (Herodotus in the 5th Century BC; Manetho in the 3rd Century BC; Diodorus Siculus in the 1st Century BC), and have more the ring of legend than of history about them. This lack of definitive historical knowledge, of course, gives Mahfouz free reign to build his fictional world. At an early stage, he has his Khufu reflecting on the nature of power itself:

" ... what brought me from being a prince into possession of the throne and of kingship was nothing but power. The covetous, the rebellious, and the resentful never ceased searching for domains to wrest from me, nor in preparing to dispatch me to my fate. And what cut out their tongues, and what chopped off their hands, and what took their wind away from them was nothing but power ... what made my word the law of the land, and what taught me the wisdom of the gods, and made it a sacred duty to obey me? Was it not power that did all this?"

I take it as a mark of really good historical fiction when I have frequently to check whether a detail is real or invented and, as with Robert Graves's I, Claudius, I certainly found that to be the case with this book. The architect, Mirabu, is fictional, as is the oft-quoted philosopher, Kagemni (there was a real Kagemni, who served as Vizier of Egypt, but he lived around two centuries after Khufu). Mahfouz, however, did not start with a blank page. He takes some themes from the Ptolemaic Egyptian historian, Manetho, but he also makes extensive use of a fascinating source known as the Westcar Papyrus, written between 2000 and 1700 BC.

The Westcar Papyrus, now in the Egyptian Museum, Berlin. Photo: Keith Schengili-Roberts (image is in the Public Domain).

I could say a good deal more about this papyrus, and will, perhaps, do so at a later date, because it has a fascinating place in the history of storytelling. It is, in effect, a collection of five short stories, each recounting a tale supposedly told at Khufu's court by his various sons. These tales of priests, magicians and miracles are perhaps the earliest works of historical fiction to have survived into our own time. From them, Mahfouz takes several of his characters, and some elements of his plot, but from them he also takes significant stylistic conventions, in a bold attempt to create a literary aesthetic that is uniquely Egyptian, without being either Arab or Islamic.

Head of Djedefre, Khufu's immediate successor, and a significant character in the novel. Photo: Anneke Bart (image is in the Public Domain).

Statue of Khafra, historically the successor to Djedefre, but also the villain of Mahfouz's novel. We know little of his character but Mahfouz's account of his life is counter-factual.

Mahfouz's Khufu is not wise at the beginning of the novel, but he becomes wise by the end as, from his deathbed, he looks back on his life. He has, in effect, "discovered" the dangers of hubris, two thousand years before the Greek tragedians:

"Some twenty years ago, I proclaimed a war against the Fates, ruthlessly challenging the will of the gods ... Everything appeared to me that it would proceed according to my own desire, and I was not troubled by doubt of any kind. I thought that I had executed my own will, and raised the respect for my word. Verily, today, my self-assurance is made ridiculous, and now - by the lord - my pride is battered ... "

Khufu's Wisdom is an early work by a writer whose career spanned seven decades. It does not read like a modern English novel, precisely because Mahfouz was attempting to define the modern Egyptian novel. It is, however, a stunningly original attempt to bring to life an epoch that is almost unimaginably distant from our own, and to get as close as anyone could ever get to understanding that period on its own terms.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 3 "The Gift of Stones," by Jim Crace

The last glacial period came to an end between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago. As temperatures rose, people in a few parts of the world developed closer and closer relationships with particular plant and animal species (wheat, barley, sheep, goat, pig & cattle in the Near East; rice & pig in China; maize & beans in Mexico; potato, quinoa & llama in Peru), leading ultimately to domestication. Previously mobile hunter-gatherers became settled farmers and herdsmen, living in villages. This "Neolithic" way of life spread outwards from the initial centres of crop and animal domestication through a combination of (mostly) small-scale population movements, and the adoption of the new practices by neighbouring hunter-gatherer groups.

Reconstructed house in the Neolithic settlement of Catal Huyuk, Turkey. Photo: Elelicht (licensed under CCA).

A Neolithic house at Skara Brae, Orkney. Photo: John Allan (licensed under CCA).

Jim Crace's novel, The Gift of Stones, is set in a Neolithic village somewhere on the coast of a land that feels like Britain. There are flint-mines very close to the shore, which immediately made me think of Sussex, but there are horses, chickens and rabbits in the story, none of which were present in Neolithic Sussex (or, indeed, anywhere in Neolithic Britain). We are not, in fact, in a real time or place at all, and this is quite deliberate on Crace's part. He has said that he is not interested in "getting the facts right," but rather in "telling lies in order to explore contemporary themes." A lie, in this sense, may hide a greater truth, but we should not expect that greater truth to relate to a specific time or place.

The novel is, in part, a story about stories. There are two (unnamed) first person narrators, a one-armed story-teller and his "daughter" (actually his step-daughter). The story-teller has stumbled on his vocation, in part because of his disability, but also because of his childhood talent for telling lies. The villagers typically prefer those of his stories which are outright lies (specifically those which confirm them in their prejudices), to those based on truth (especially if they challenge those assumptions). In common with the daughter, the villagers, and perhaps even the story-teller himself, the reader is often uncertain as to what is truth and what is lies, since there are multiple explanations for almost everything that happens.

"Why tell the truth when lies are more amusing, when lies can make the listener shake her head and laugh - and cough - and roll her eyes? People are like stones. You strike them right, they open up like shells."

"He claimed he was not sure, that stories were like dreams, like dragonflies. They came and went. They only gave one show. His cousins might remember. But he could not. Besides, he'd told a hundred versions since - and no two were quite the same."

One "greater truth" behind these stories is about the division of labour. The villagers are specialists: some of them "stoneys," who mine and work flint; others merchants, who barter the flint tools with neighbouring communities in return for food and other goods. Although they live by the sea, nobody fishes. The land on which they have settled may or may not be fertile, but nobody grows anything, or grazes animals on it, apart from a few chickens which scratch around the village itself. Since they have "the gift of stones," why should anyone concern themselves with anything else? The villagers are inward-looking, and ever so slightly smug, but they are also good at what they do.

"Leaf placed his sharpened antler tine on the flint exactly where the tendon was attached, and struck it with a wooden mallet. These were the perfect tools, but only in hands like Leaf's that were firm and certain ... A little sideways pressure removed the tump, the shell, the bulb. More pressure produced a mounting nest of fine and shallow flakes on the anvil as the blade was patterned and reduced."

Flint dagger from Hindsgavl, Denmark. Photo: Kim Bach/Achirl (licensed under CCA).

The Neolithic really was a period of increasing division of labour. Among Yanan's people, some may have been more skilled than others, but everyone would have gathered, hunted and fished. As the age of farms and villages dawned, some land was better suited to cultivation, and some to grazing. Some people became growers, and others herdsmen. Some became potters, and others flint-knappers, weavers or carpenters. Such division of labour has, of course, become the basis for all subsequent civilisation, but it also carries risks.

Neolithic pottery vessel from Rauchenberg-Bracht, Hesse, Germany. Photo: Willow (licensed under CCA).

When ships arrive off the coast, and horsemen gallop into the village, bringing new technologies that threaten to make their skills redundant, how are the villagers to adapt? Having previously been a marginal figure in the village, the story-teller is suddenly centre-stage. People look to him for leadership, since he seems to know about the outside world, but just how much does he really know, and how much was he simply making up?

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.