culture wars logo archive
archive
about us
about us
links
links
contact
contact
current
current

 

Man Booker Prize
2004 longlist

Buy this book

Havoc In Its Third Year
Natasha Hulugalle


Natasha Hulugalle

'Like the best historical novels, it vividly captures the period yet resonates with the present', enthuses the hype for Havoc, in its Third Year. It may be a whimsical suggestion, but what exactly is wrong with an old-fashioned swashbuckler that doesn't resonate with the present?

Those that do can sometimes draw attention away from other features that are worth discussion. You feel obliged to remain ever alert, ready to exclaim the likeness between the book in your hands and the news on the TV screen. Although Ronan Bennett clearly knows how to write superior historical fiction without drowning in period detail, there is an obvious determination to link the past with the present that dominates the reputation of Havoc.

You can't fail with the 1630s if you have a point to make about moral panics, crusades and persecution. Bennett uses an anonymous town and Puritan stronghold in the North of England to demonstrate the fear and civil unrest that such a climate incites. As coroner, secret Papist and a governor of the town, the sombre John Brigge instinctively casts himself as an outsider. Whilst others seek to maintain the strict laws of retribution he favours the fair trial and judgement of the numerous petty criminals that are arrested for their frivolous sinning.

Preferring to rest at his farm with his wife and newborn son, it is his relatively humane beliefs that motivate him to pursue his work. The town only offers danger, disorder and the threat of arrest, but Brigge doggedly perseveres with a coronary case involving an uncooperative Irishwoman accused of infanticide.

It is not Bennett's desire to resonate with the present that makes this an interesting novel, but his obvious mastery of his chosen form. It is tempting at first to read his language as comical or even satirical ('A pox on him and all his kind!') He is however so confident and inventive with the style that it becomes churlish to mock. Details are meticulous and unobtrusive, as seasons and landscapes adopt an effortless 17th century hue.

Despite the chaos and hysteria, Bennett uses a moody and simmering tone. Initial impressions encourage the assumption that this is a historical thriller. Yet there is no conventional urgency to the intrigue surrounding Katherine Shay. Rather than increasing tension in the traditional manner, characters suffer from the sheer uncertainty of their personal and public lives.

The worlds that Brigge inhabits, and consequently the differing worldviews are deftly contrasted. Bennett is careful to emphasise that it is the quiet normality, realism and grasp of human nature that secures his special status. His farm is no twee, rural idyll, but bleak and sometimes overpoweringly silent and remote. It remains a haven for Brigge because it is a place where people are free to act and be punished by their own conscience.

In contrast, when he leaves the farm he is beset by an onslaught of cruelty and disorder. Here Bennett embraces a gruesome delight in his gory descriptions of Puritan suppression.

'He turned and motioned to Doliffe, who came forward with the bridle. A cage for the head, a stone in weight, black-painted hoops of iron in the shape of a helmet. Brigge looked at the protrusion of spiked metal attached to the inner part of one of the lower bands, the bit that would stop Shay's tongue. He had seen women retch and vomit when the bit was forced into their mouths and the bridle locked in place. He had seen smashed teeth and broken jaws and gashed lips and gums... "Breathe through your nose and try to be calm", Brigge told her, "else you will choke and die".'

Havoc, in its Third Year is less obvious and commonplace than it would first appear. You anticipate something straightforward, but it unexpectedly revolves around a mystery that loses momentum as it nears solution. Contemporary similarities are easy to find, but Bennett shows a more original imagination with his use of language and severe depictions of Puritan life. It is these more modest features that invite a second reading.

 

 
All articles on this site Culture Wars.