When I think of the great historical fiction novelists, the first name to come to my mind is Dorothy Dunnett. Jenny first introduced me to Dunnett more than 10 years ago, when she urged me to read the Lymond Chronicles, Dunnett’s marvelous 6-volume series about the fictional 16-century Scottish nobleman Francis Crawford of Lymond. Within 5 years of that first introduction, I had devoured the Lymond books and the even more compelling 8-novel prequel series, the House of Niccolò. But the novel that stands above them all is her one standalone historical novel, King Hereafter, which I just finished reading for the second time.
King Hereafter is the story of Macbeth, king of Alba. That’s right, Macbeth of the three witches, Birnam Wood, and “Is this a dagger I see before me?” Except that Dunnett’s version of this man has very little in common with Shakespeare’s ambitious murderer.
Dunnett’s version of this 11th-century king is actually the same man as Thorfinn, the Earl of Orkney. I know next to nothing about the history of this period, but I understand that she arrived at this conclusion after doing extensive research into the period. I can’t speak to the likelihood of her being correct, but I can tell you that her version of the man is an exciting figure whose story took my breath away when I first delved into it years ago.
Even better is Dunnett’s version of Lady Macbeth, Groa, a Norwegian beauty previously wed to one of Macbeth’s political rivals, Gillacomghain of Moray. Thorfinn initially takes Groa as a war prize after he defeats Gillacomghain, but she soon becomes a full partner of his mind and his heart. The scenes between the two of them are the heart and soul of the novel. The intimate scenes are some of the best that I’ve read (I’m a full believer in the less is more school of bedroom writing, and Dunnett manages the balance perfectly. It’s downright steamy in its way, mostly because it’s about intimacy, not about the meeting of compatible parts.)
Although I love this relationship, and it’s the thing that stands out most clearly from my first reading of the book, I don’t want to give the idea that this is a historical romance. Far from it. Political machinations, battle plans, and religious transformations also get ample page time. When the novel begins, Thorfinn isn’t expected to do anything more than one-third of the islands of Orkney, but events transpire to raise him far above all expectations. As his power grows, so must the nature of his rule. Nowhere does this become more apparent as in his dealings with his nephew Rognvald, a rival for the rule of Orkney. Their bond at times seems almost as strong as that between Thorfinn and Groa, but Rognvald’s ambition and jealousy drive him to make some dangerous and disloyal choices that test Thorfinn’s resolve to be a proper king over all his people while remaining an honorable man. (Thorfinn’s standards of honor are extraordinarily high—but altogether different from modern notions of right and wrong.)
Besides being a personal story of close relationships, this is also a tale of nations. Dunnett paints on a massive canvas that takes in not only Britain and Ireland, but also Denmark, Norway, Normandy, Rome, and more. We see how the power relationships are interconnected and how one marriage or one alliance can ripple down to affect every other nation in the region. Macbeth is in a particularly difficult position because he must rule several disparate nations—Orkney, Caithness, and Alba. He commits himself to looking out for the interests of the people of all these nations without ever requiring them to sacrifice themselves for others under his rule. His ambition is to use his power to serve his people, and most of them seem to love him for it. This is most decidedly not Shakespeare’s version of the man. (Although Shakespeare fans will enjoy a few sly winks toward the Scottish play, not least of which is the title of the novel itself.)
As much as I love this book, I must warn potential readers that it can be hard going. In fact, on this second read I found myself wondering several times in the early chapters why I loved it so much on the first read. Aside from a rip-roaring footrace along the oars of a longboat, I didn’t find much to excite me in the first 200 pages, and at times I felt utterly lost. Dunnett just throws readers into this entirely new and alien world of 11th-century Scotland without much in the way of help. There are some maps and some complex family trees, but most of these make little sense before you’ve read a good chunk of the book. Most of Dunnett’s books do include a character list, which is a tremendous help, but there isn’t one in the edition of King Hereafter that I read. I have learned with Dunnett that sometimes the best thing to do is to figure out who the central figures are and just worry about them. I’ve also learned to accept that I will not understand every detail on a first (or even a second) read of a Dunnett novel.
So with this in mind, I read on, and at about page 200, it clicked. I remembered what I loved so much, and I started to see patterns that I hadn’t noticed on the first read, when the close relationships were my main interest. Not every section is equally interesting, and there are plenty of things I still don’t quite get, but I think that’s a testimony to the richness of Dunnett’s narrative, rather than to any muddiness in the storytelling. Even having read it before, I found myself having to put the book down several times, not because I was frustrated or confused but because I was overcome with emotion at the turns that Thorfinn’s life took.
I can understand that Dunnett’s dense style may not be for everyone, but if you’re at all interested in historical fiction, do yourself a favor and at least give her a try. If you find that she is for you, your only regret will be that you haven’t discovered her sooner.
Other Bloggers’ Views: The Literary Omnivore