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The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf

Straight away I knew I had to read this book. The title is perfect. Then the blurb just screams ‘come and get me’:

Tristan Hart, precociously talented student of medicine practising under the legendary Dr William Hunter…Tristan Hart, madman and deviant.
The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones

Do you see the trigger words – medicine, madman, deviant and William Hunter? OK, a brief diversion into how much I love the Hunter brothers. William was a talented anatomist, responsible for commissioning some truly breathtaking drawings of foetuses in situ. His work was precise and revelatory. He was also man-midwife to the stars in the eighteenth century. I love, and worship, his brother John more. He was an obsessive collector and anatomist, and was probably in my biased opinion the more brilliant of the two. However, his manners were rough and he was in no way suited to the polite society in which William moved. He was also ruthless, and devious, impervious to the needs of others at times. Now, I chitter chatter away about these two not just because I’m crazy about them, but also because they remind me of the two sides of Tristan Hart.

Tristan is odd, but not all the time. Sometimes he can behave perfectly normally. He can forge relationships; his sister adores him, and he’s not short of admirers. He does have a troubling friendship with Nathaniel Ravenscroft, his ‘dearest Friend and closest Companion.’ Nathaniel is very good at getting into mischief. He acts impulsively and with impunity. He never gets caught for his misdemeanours. Usually Tristan too lives under his charmed umbrella, but all good things come to an end. A thrashing and ear-bashing change Tristan’s path. He is introduced to education, for which he has some considerable talent. He sets his mind to university, but there is something dark lurking inside Tristan. He is obsessive, teetering on the edge of sanity. Nathaniel’s stories of goblins and faeries and things that go bump in the night lie deep within Tristan’s soul. His first descent into madness will not be his last.

To fulfil his ambition to study further Tristan needs to act appropriately. It’s not easy when he is pursued by vengeful gypsies, and hounding by drumming in his head. He also has a very personal interest in the nature of pain; how blurred are the boundaries between pleasure and pain? Can illness be cured by pain, and is it seemly to be so aroused by the screams of those in agony? Tristan justifies his penchant for inflicting pain by aligning it in his own mind with his scientific research. But, he is torn between his desires and his duties, and tormented by his phantasies. His only hope of salvation is Nathaniel’s cousin Katherine. With her, he might be able to reconcile his fractured self.

There is so much amazing stuff in this book. It’s written in the style of the period, which could come off a bit twee or tiresome, but is actually triumphant. I wanted to climb inside the book and have a look around – as long as I could stay well clear of Tristan. He is scary. His ability to rationalise even his most violent actions is chilling. His sadism is drenched in madness; he is frenzied, uncontrolled. But the lack of understanding of his urges exacerbates this; he is capable of restraint and affection. He cannot be simply dismissed as bad, or sociopathic, I don’t think. Even though I was repulsed by his actions at times, I also felt sympathy for his plight. He is so frightened of the things only he sees and of himself. The devotion he inspires in others, too, gives me a spark of kindness towards him. And I want him to be happy. 

It’s a gory, violent, visceral book – there’s no concession to the squeamish. It’s also gloriously weaves the rational, scientific thoughts of the eighteenth century with the supernatural and superstitious. It wasn’t all enlightenment; there was plenty of shade too, which is captured so well here. It is crazy to think this is a first novel. Jack Wolf is a bloody good writer.

I was very lucky to receive an advance copy of this book, thank you Random House.


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