Wednesday, August 3

Savage Magic by Lloyd Shepherd

You don't see many historical novels written in the present tense. There's three reasons for this. Firstly, novels have really only been written in the present tense for the past few decades, so if you're writing one that's supposed to be aping the style of the time (as this one does, badly), writing it in the present tense is an immediate barrier to that. Secondly, it's weird that the action has already happened a long time ago, but is also happening now. It's a strange and alienating paradox.

And thirdly, it's can just be a bit clunky at the best of times. Authors like Hilary Mantel have justified it by saying that it brings the past into the present, and that it captures "the jitter and flux of events, the texture of them, their ungraspable speed". And, yeah, I didn't like Wolf Hall, but I can appreciate the beautiful writing and how the present tense worked well as part of that style. In Savage Magic it just sounds like this: 
He asks after Sir Henry, and is told that the master of the house is up in London and has been for some weeks. Mrs Graham expresses some satisfactions that this is so as they sit down.
That just sounds clangy to me. I have trouble even picturing what's going on here. Plus how exactly has Mrs Graham, Charles Horton's social superior, expressed her satisfaction that Sir Henry, her cousin and lover, is away? That's a real minefield of a social situation, and emblematic of Shepherd's really sketchy worldbuilding.

And the writing is altogether generally sloppy, as if there wasn't much thought put into it. For example, do we really think that Aaron Graham has "heard good things" about the Hoxton madhouse?
He makes a note to visit Brooke House when he can, and perhaps even to consider placing Abigail in another institution - the Hoxton madhouse, perhaps, of which he has heard good things.
And can anyone picture this woman?
She is, by Horton's reckoning, over fifty years old. She wears clothes which once must have been respectable but which are now threadbare, although care has obviously been taken to maintain their dignity to the extent that such a thing is possible. Her grey hair is almost bald in places, and two or three ugly warts molest her face. But when she speaks out to him, her voice is warm and kind.
Plus did Shepherd just say that her clothes have dignity and that her hair is bald? This reads like it was sleep-written. He also drops in little bits of post-modern-ish anachronisms which are probably supposed to be funny:
Still the subject of what took place in Maria's cell the day before is not mentioned explicitly. It is a huge creature - an elephant, perhaps - that sits in the room beside them, about which neither is allowed to talk.
Or crazy switches in viewpoint:
And so, Charles Horton, you find yourself on a country lane face-to-face with a witch. What does one say in such a situation?
These would almost maybe work as humorous counterpoints in a novel that was better at aping the style of early-1800s literature, and that painted a complete and coherent picture of a dark and mysterious Regency-era London. Savage Magic, however, falls flat when it comes to describing its world, sketching out its locations, characters, and social issues with the lightest of tones, and keeping them free of the interesting details that would make them interesting to read about. The only evocative element is the setting of Brooke House - Shepherd did his research here, and it shows. It's the scenes in this asylum, particularly the converted chapel, that are the most vividly imagined.

Very occasionally, too, the writing gets good and we're treated with a flash of insightful characterisation or clever humour which shows the heights to which Savage Magic could have risen:
Sir Henry Tempest stands in front of his portrait with, Horton presumes, no satirical intent. But the juxtaposition of the idealised portrayal with the fat, angry and contemptuous reality is too stark to be ignored. Horton, after a mere three minutes with Sir Henry, thinks he can picture a small army of servants stood here where he is now, inwardly smirking at how far the real man falls from the man in oils up there on the wall.
It's a pity then that most of the novel is as reductive, inane, and ridiculous as this actual quote that one of the characters actually says to another:
'Hold your tongue, trollop. And tell me where Talty is, lest you spend the rest of this night in the watch house.'
I think there must be a reference work somewhere that states that if you want your novel to sound 'period', you should have your characters tell each other to hold your tongue, call each other trollop, say lest, whilst, and amongst instead of unless, while, and among, threaten each other with extended stays in the watch house, and refer to units of time with the pronoun this (this day instead of today, this night instead of the night, this hour... well you get the idea). And that you should call one of them Talty 

I haven't said much about the plot, partly because there's not much to say about the plot. It's a many-stranded, multi-viewpoint narrative which follows Charles Horton's investigations into witchcraft allegations at a manor just inside the M25, his wife's self-imposed incarceration in a lunatic asylum, and his colleague's investigation into multiple gory murders in the West End. They all come together in the end, through some hand-wavey explanations about magic, though the reader - like all the characters - is likely to be left none-the-wiser. Even the epiphanies of the detective-type characters amount to little more than "I get it now! It makes no logical sense!" Sigh. And I had such high hopes.

I've not read the first two in the series, so maybe that would have changed my perception of this book slightly. But I can't imagine they'd be that different. I won't be reading any more of them and I can't recommend that anyone else should.

Rating: 1/5
Amazon: Savage Magic
Goodreads: Savage Magic

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