Hunters in the Snow by Daisy Hildyard
One scrap among the patchwork of quotations and conceits that undergird Daisy Hildyard’s debut novel is Leopold von Ranke’s observation that young people make poor historians. True or not, the same precept can’t be applied to fiction writers: Hildyard is not yet 30, and Hunters in the Snow is one of the year’s most impressive first novels.
After the death of the narrator’s eccentric grandfather, Jimmy, she travels to his farm in rural Yorkshire to sort through what’s left of his papers. Each new file carries its own fragmentary story of a different historical personage, interrupted by the musings and recollections of the lengthy stints Jimmy appears to have spent lecturing his granddaughter over the course of her life.
Nominally focussing on particular winter journeys taken by King Edward IV, Tsar Peter the Great, freed slave Olaudah Equiano and Lord Kitchener, Jimmy’s notes (in the process of being interpreted by the narrator) attract an array of seemingly unrelated material like a magnet in a scrap-yard. There are longish passages on the history of the microscope, Werner Herzog and the mining industry in the north of England, all of which are well-drawn enough to harmonise with the book’s broader themes rather than distracting from them.
This said, the contemporary family story that sets up and supports the rest of the plot not always given its proper due. Jimmy’s complicated relationship with his hard-working and pragmatic wife occasionally takes centre stage, but within the course of a few pages there comes another reference to Herodotus and we find that we’ve been seamlessly transported back to the 1470s. Whether this is a weakness of plotting or editing is unclear, but it still speaks for Hildyard’s skill as a storyteller that these more intimate passages are good enough to make us wish there were more of them.
The prose itself if often quite beautiful and surprising – small animals being gutted and cooked are “like suitcases full of carefully folded baby clothes” – but every now and then it clunks, like the anecdotes Jimmy drops into conversation “heavily significantly.”
These are relatively minor concerns though; Hunters in the Snow’s ambition, scope and assurance (it’s worth saying again that this is a debut) are thrilling and admirable, and make for a very fine book indeed.
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Hunters in the Snow is published by Random House at the hardback price of £16.99, for further information visit here.