The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf
16 February, 2013
The year is 1750.
Meet Tristan Hart, precociously talented student of medicine practising under the legendary Dr William Hunter. His obsession is the nature of pain and preventing it; the relationship between mind and matter and the existence of God. A product of the Age of Enlightenment, he is a rational man on a quest to cut through darkness and superstition with the brilliant blade of science.
Meet Tristan Hart, madman and deviant. His obsession is the nature of pain, and causing it. A product of an age of faeries and goblins, gnomes and shape-shifting gypsies, he is on a quest to arouse the perfect scream and slay the daemon Raw Head who torments his dark days and long nights.
Troubled visionary, twisted genius, loving sadist. What is real and what imagined in Tristan Hart’s brutal, beautiful, complex world?
This is an interesting one. 18th century, science, lunacy, goblins. Everything about it screamed READ ME. And so I did. But I found it hard going and put it aside for another book. But I always give second chances to books. Jack Wolf’s debut, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones isn’t for everyone, that much is certain. I wasn’t sure whether it was for me either. It’s certainly a very accomplished and polished novel, it’s almost a conceit that it’s a debut. And it took me almost halfway into the novel before I began to see what all the fuss was about and to enjoy reading it. Because it’s not really for the squeamish.
It’s also a rather tricky story to summarise. Tristan Hart is a difficult young man. As a boy, he ran around with his friend Nathanial Ravenscroft who disappears one night after throwing a wild party leaving Tristan to his lunatic ramblings. Tristan believes he has run off with the Viviane, a mysterious gypsy whom he had assaulted the previous night, and is racked with fear and guilt. His father sends him to London to study medicine and while he discovers a talent for it, it also encourages his obsession with inflicting pain and he simultaneously indulges in the study of both. When he returns home for his sister’s wedding, he meets Katherine Montague, Nathanial’s cousin, who wholly accepts him, sordid secret and all. But a chance disclosure threatens his sanity again. Will his marriage to Katherine save him? And will he find Nathanial again?
What starts out as a tale of diabolical pleasures and lunacy transforms halfway into something a little deeper and more philosophical as we begin to understand Tristan. There is something not quite right about him. But it’s not just his strange hobbies. Tristan’s obsession with Nathanial threatens to derail his relationship with everyone. And as you read on, you slowly begin to realise that Tristan’s mind is indeed fractured. He is the quintessential unreliable narrator and you can’t trust what’s on the page.
I thought it was rather clever. Wolf has somehow managed to thrust the reader into Tristan’s frenetic mind. You can’t quite empathise with his violence and sexual preferences, yet you can’t wholly see him as something truly evil.
The only thing that nagged me from the beginning and which I found difficult to overcome was the writing style, especially the unreasonable use of capital letters. I know that the author is trying to emulate the printing style of quasi-Georgian men of letters but it just distracted me and felt all shouty which made reading a rather laborious exercise. I did get used to it in the end but it did take me almost halfway through the story before I really got into it. But once I did, I enjoyed this gothic, dream-like read.
Do also check out Suzi Feay’s review in the FT.
I would like to thank Chatto and Windus for kindly sending me a review copy.