(Beautiful Books Limited, 2011, 384 pages, ISBN: 9781907616969)
In 1087, Thomas the Piper picks up his whistle and coaxes forth tunes that bring to life the history of his ancestors over the span of a hundred years. Thomas’ family were serfs and story-weavers, their tale beginning with his famed great-grandfather, the dwarf Tom Thumb, once storyteller to King Edgar himself. Truth and fable are plied in a yarn that weaves its way through the years, from Tom’s search for and wooing of his beloved, once-beautiful Fleda, to the joys and tragedies of their son, gentle giant Bas, Bas’ children, the strong-willed Emma and her younger brother Harry, and finally Thomas the Piper himself.
This is a novel I found by turns haunting and playful. Although his characters may blur the boundaries between truth and romance in the tales they tell, Edden is very clear about the grim realities of life in these years – plague, famine, murder and gang rape all appear within the course of the novel. Yet this is never gratuitous, and amid these appalling circumstances we also see the characters’ strength, the immense compassion and determination in Thomas’ family, which weathers treachery and misery. The playfulness comes in Edden’s lightness of touch, teasing reference to nursery rhyme and folktale, and his wry humour, buoying up both the characters and the novel itself.
Edden is, like his storytellers, a wordsmith, and the language of the novel is unfussy but rich, making for a satisfying read. Beautiful composite words, such as ‘life-tinder’ and ‘not-too-distance’, give a distinctly Old English flavour, and sometimes original Old English words are used, to more clearly define what the characters perceive. The tales are sprinkled with poems written in an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ style, spare but lyrical, with those lovely composite words that compress meaning into something short, sweet and instantly understood. These poems, like the narrative, are sometimes haunting, and sometimes playful, and add to the sense of this as an oral tale, a story focused on the passing down of finely crafted words and the lives held within them, living on.
All of Thomas’ family were rounded, distinct characters, easy to empathise with. Their major adversaries had convincing motivations and they, too, were well-drawn – as were the secondary characters. And that includes one very flatulent mule. The main characters are fictional, but there are appearances by both Harold Godwinsson and William of Normandy.
An author’s note at the beginning of the novel deals briefly with his decision to include some Old English and includes helpful information about word-endings.
Evocative and enjoyable tale of late Anglo-Saxon England.