“a man should die not too early or too late. A man who dies early never reaches his potential, while a man who dies late will become a mockery of himself.”
“Even our gods can die”.
Despite my love of Dark Books (wherein death or the possibility of it is always a privileged McGuffin), I live in a culture where my own future death is a rather remote, hypothetical thing. I know I will die, just as I know that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of the other two sides, but I know it with about as much immediacy or interest. It’s ineluctable and I do believe it, but it’s not something of any relevance to my life. ‘Life’ is all there is, and I’m living mine as if death weren’t at the end of it – almost as if it’s not happening to anyone I care about, either.
I only thought about the above, because this is a book where the opposite is true. It is historical fiction about people living in a conflict-ravaged island off ancient Britain, where death – frequently violent – is everywhere. This is one of the few realities that can be detected with some confidence from the archaeological record of this time (I gather there are plenty of weapons and rather a lot of violently damaged skeletons) and it is foundational to the fictitious world that this archaeologist author has created. It is a remarkable book. In a sense, the whole story is an exploration of what it must be to live in such a world, with so much death. JTT Ryder describes a world in which tribes vie with each other for the scant necessities of life, resulting in a great deal of slaughter, amplified by a parallel vying for revenge, for a glorious memory, for honor, leading (in turn and tragically) to yet more slaughter…
Our lives in the world are short – their philosophy seems to say – but our lives in memory can be long. Let death be welcomed if it comes with honour. And since death is always imminent, let it be something as much to be managed and worked towards as one’s next meal or cattle raid. Let it be a currency whose value accrues to the capital of one’s tribe , whose endurance is significant in a way that one’s own life isn’t.
Occasionally, reading this, I thought it was preposterous. “Yes”, I thought, “the powerful in any society can treat other people’s lives as cheap – human sacrifices in this story are made as pragmatically as a libation of wine – but no one can see their own life that way. Is not human consciousness universal and is not its core the urgent materiality of surviving, being alive, sharing that experience with loved ones, relishing their presence? Isn’t that the survival instinct? No culture could ever so obliterate this, that personal death or the deaths of friends would become trivial. This is absolute.”
Then I stopped. I thought of how, within a generation of my own tribe, that material centre of identity and relationship has been progressively displaced by a quest for an immaterial Instagram or Facebook life, a curated narrative only loosely linked to physical reality. Real experiences – never perfect – can be sacrificed for the sake of getting the perfect image of an experience. Real friendships may pale beside an implausibly heroic tally of ‘facebook friends’ or ‘twitter followers’. And my physical self is definitely inferior to my photoshopped selfie: she’s the real me, I tell you, she’s the one that matters. So as I tick the boxes to determine what will happen to my digital identity after my physical death, I should remind myself that human identity is a response to the circumstances in which we live, is molded by changing technology, is an artifice.
Who knows what the people of 200BC really thought, really felt? The subjectivity that the author creates may be entirely incorrect, but in the face of everything we can deduce about the period, it is at least plausible. I found it intriguing to let this author lead me into the imagined mindset of this. He has clearly researched it with great meticulousness, and I was convinced by it. If you love history, you will love this story for the authenticity of its research; if you love anthropology, you will relish this portrayal of a mindset and a social order.
To be fair, I was less engrossed by the story – or rather, I felt it rambled rather formlessly, and since it wasn’t to be structured by much depth of developing relationships, then it needed more structure in its plotting from ‘coming of age’ to ‘old soldier telling his story’. I itched to give it some more brutal editing, (oh for goodness sake, cut down those repetitive battle scenes! I get it: they had a grizzly fight and lots of people died. Couldn’t he just tell us who won, what significant characters karked it, and get on with the story…?) But my preferences are eccentric so I won’t punish the author by taking away a star. I am the cynic who has yawned and checked my watch through the fight scenes of all the best action movies, while the rest of the audience was so transfixed that they didn’t even notice me stealing their popcorn. No doubt plenty of readers will love the battle scenes in this book. If battles are your thing and you like them ‘vivid’, you will be deeply rewarded.
Review by De Gevallene