By Jack Wolf
Available now from Penguin
I was eager to read THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES. If there's one thing I love, it's a fairy story. And the bogeyman Raw Head may not be well known on this side of the pond, but I have heard of him because I am just that much of a geek. (Okay, so he was in the latest Dresden Files novel.) Throw in a genius young man who might be mad and I'm there.
Then I started the book and worried about what I'd gotten into by signing up for the TLC book tour. There was the capitalization of every noun, the archaic spellings - I despaired. I get going for atmosphere, honestly, but it's pretentious and unauthentic. After all, the words are misspelled the same way every time in a modern text. And it doesn't start with Tristan Hart going off to be a physician and studying pain. Oh no, it starts when he's a little kid with a best friend, Nathaniel Ravenscroft, who is a little jerk obviously going to grow into a bigger jerk.
Then when Tristan gets older and finally goes off to London, he stays with Henry Fielding. The Henry Fielding. It was an odd intrusion of reality that I wasn't into. And well, I was struggling with Tristan's fantasies. The guy has some mental health issues, although those around him are more aware of it than he is. (Animal lovers: beware.) But I'd promised to read this book! And about 200 pages in, it started clicking. It was his first surgery - a scene that's gruesome, but the physical action is overwhelmed by both Tristan's lust and his competence as a doctor. I loved the duality of his talent and his sadism.
As THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES goes on, people and places from the long beginning start showing up again. But it's hard to know if they're really there, because Tristan is the narrator and Tristan is crazy. The text is channeled through his psychosis and it's hard to know what's really happening because Tristan doesn't know. Then things really get interesting when it turns out Tristan might not be as nutty as he seems. (He definitely takes his sadism beyond safe, sane, and consensual, but still, less nutty.) It's one thing to know he's an unreliable narrator - to think that he might have been reliable at certain points in the novel is rather startling.
By the climax I was utterly enthralled. I had no idea what Tristan might do, how he might react, how he might save himself. I was impressed by his humanity, the goodness he managed to cultivate despite believing himself a Monster. I liked how the book explored many types of desire, and showed how there can be benefit in even the darkest kinds. I liked his relationship with Katherine Montague, Nathaniel's cousin, a young girl betrayed by her family and suffering emotionally, but undaunted and irrepressible. It was the fairy story I was promised.
In addition to the intriguing, perhaps nonexistent, paranormal elements, I enjoyed the historical aspect of THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES. Tristan is interested in both philosophy and medicine. His questioning of religion is quite radical, as are his insights into the source of strokes. It's exciting to see a character puzzle out something that we know based on what he can observe. I also liked that Tristan was well-to-do, the son of a country squire, but not well-liked or received because his mother was a Jew and he took after her in looks. He's aware of certain injustices of the time that another squire's son would not be.
I'm not going to lie; the beginning of THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES is rough. I found the style artificial and felt the book wasn't delivering the creepiness promised. Then the style started disappearing into the background and I fell completely into Tristan's worldview. THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES is a rewarding, cathartic novel if you're willing to give it a chance. I'm very happy I stuck with it.
I have one copy of THE TALE OF RAW HEAD AND BLOODY BONES to give away courtesy of TLC Book Tours and Penguin. US and Canada only.
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