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In his debut novel, The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones (Penguin), Jack Wolf leads the reader through an eighteenth-century Britain heaving under the strain of unprecedented change. Tristan Hart, the protagonist, is very much a man of his Enlightened time: rational, open-minded and utterly obsessed with scientific progress. In possession of considerable genius, he shows a keen intuition and promise as a first-rate surgeon and anatomist. There are only two obstacles that stand in the way of his success: his untameable sadism and perceived insanity due to a debilitating fear of the Goblin Knight, Faerie Queen and local terror, Raw Head.
While the book follows a traditional approach to what is, at its root, a love story, the specifics of Tristan’s life add a truly radical twist. The linear narrative–moving from his childhood on his father’s rural estate to sexual and intellectual awakening in London and then back to the country for love and marriage–is augmented by acute philosophical insight, violent sexual episodes, periods of mental illness and supernatural encounters. It’s his childhood friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who introduces both Tristan and the reader to the local superstition from which the novel takes its name, as well as the apparent existence of fantastical creatures like gnomes and goblins. While it isn’t until later in life that Tristan comes to realise the truth behind Nathaniel’s claims, the stories truly impress him and the question of who Raw Head and Bloody Bones are looms over this engaging tale.
The aspect that dominates Tristan’s life and, by necessity, the novel is his sadistic sexual proclivity. It is in a London brothel that he is first given free-reign to act out violent fantasies that have plagued him since childhood. This not only begins his reflections on the nature of pain and pleasure–if both he and the whore enjoyed his tortures, how could it be evil? – but inspired an almost Süsken-esque mission to extract the perfect scream (as opposed to Jean-Baptiste’s perfect scent).
While sufficiently less graphic, the Marquis de Sade’s work remains a clear inspiration for the seemingly twisted love affairs that dominate the novel. To justify the morality of his carnal cravings, Tristan develops a sophisticated philosophy towards pain. Noting its universality, that it requires no language and crosses all boundaries between “Man and Beast, Monster and Angel”, he concludes that “’Tis a Species of Love”. Upon hearing his wife, Katherine, scream, he realises that it is ‘An Human Sound, closer to Perfection than a Musician’s finest note: Pain distilled into Sound, Sound into Beauty, Beauty.” Pain and love, pain and beauty: these diametrically opposed sensations are perfectly rationalised within Tristan’s mind.
Two less developed, but nonetheless overarching, themes are Tristan’s Jewish heritage and a subtext of homoeroticism. Jews were persecuted in Britain at this time and, while it is anachronistic to say that homosexuals were as well (there was arguably no notion of a homosexual identity before the nineteenth century), acts of same-sex passion were criminalised. Yet Tristan’s approach to both is remarkably accepting.
Tristan readily appreciates male beauty and his relaxed approach to sexuality is exemplified during an exchange with the mistress of his favourite brothel. Noting how unexcited he was by the typical girls, she asks if he would prefer a boy to which he says he wished that was what he desired. More than just initially seeing homosexuality as preferable to sadism, his fluid appreciation of beauty and noted lust for the adult Isaac–although he is only ever sexually active with women–continue throughout his life.
These three dominant themes, which seem to have little in common, actually imbue the novel with quite a coherent purpose. The mid-eighteenth century was a time of tension–religion was increasingly challenged by science, and science increasingly attempted to define what was natural. Stricter policing of individuals meant that certain sexual practises (e.g. sadism and homosexuality) were castigated in similar ways and upon similar terms as religious minorities. However, through Tristan we see how seeming opposites are rationally reconciled. Those that society condemns, those that fall out-with its norms, are not sinful or evil. They are merely situated differently along a spectrum of human experience.
A PhD student of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, Wolf says that it was his life-long interest in fairy tales and social history that drove this project. He achieves a remarkable balance between the two, with certain stylistic choices–such as the of the era spelling and capitalization (e.g. “intirely,” “all Sensation”)–bringing an additional level of authenticity to the story. For those unfamiliar with pre-standardised English, however, these novelties can be a bit off-putting in the beginning.
I must admit that I was initially unsure as to why the book merited being shortlisted for the Polari First Prize – awarded to a debut British novel dealing with LGBT issues. Same-sex attraction is alluded to throughout the text, but nothing particularly explicit. Upon completion, however, it becomes apparent that the relative invisibility of homosexuality (while historically accurate) in no ways diminishes the important exploration between morality and persecuted outcasts. In showing that apparent dichotomies are actually linguistic human constructions, Wolf undermines the legitimacy of moralising human behaviour. It is argued that mercy is the ultimate virtue, and it exists in “Shared Pain, and in Lust, and in Human Love”– it is a point of shared humanity that transcends religion and sexuality.
The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones
by Jack Wolf
Paperback, 9781937420574, 560 pp.