Pytheas (fl.320 BC) is a historical figure, a Greek trader, geographer, explorer and scientist from Marseille. He wrote an account of his travels which took him to Britain and the Baltic, principally for commercial reasons – he was in search of tin, ivory and amber – but also from scientific curiosity. He mapped the British Isles and wrote an account of his travels. This hasn’t survived, but we know of it from references and quotations in the work of the elder Pliny and the geographer Strabo among others. Since, however, we know nothing about his character, feelings or personal life, Mandy Haggith is free to make Pytheas what she chooses, but simply because he is a historical figure, he also serves to anchor her imagined but also well-researched picture of Iron Age life in Britain (principally Cornwall and Orkney) in real time. That picture owes much to her association and work with archaeologists and museum curators, but its vitality derives from her intelligent sympathy with a long-buried, or vanquished, culture.
Historical novelists are always faced with the problem of how they should have their people speak. There are advantages of course in going either far back in time or having characters who aren’t English-speakers. Set a novel in 16th or 17th century Scotland or England and it is difficult to write dialogue that doesn’t ring false or isn’t to some extent pastiche. Having a Greek narrator reporting conversations with Iron Age Celts means that you don’t have to try to achieve an authenticity that is in truth unavoidably spurious. Haggith sensibly opts for neutral everyday English, and consequently the novel reads easily.
She is a good storyteller. Naturally, despite this second novel being written from a different point of view, and being capable of standing alone and being read without reference to The Walrus Mutterer, it will have especial interest and significance for those who have read, and been pleased by, its predecessor. They will be particularly eager to learn more about the beautiful, even bewitching slave-girl Rian, the heroine of the first book, and are unlikely to be disappointed. Many of those coming to the trilogy for the first time will surely want to track back and read the earlier novel.
It’s an assumption, probably a necessary one, of the historical novel that though circumstances change over the centuries – habits, ways of life, faiths and ideas of right and wrong and what is permissible – nevertheless human nature is in most respects constant, people experiencing the same emotions – love, fear, envy greed, desire etc. The assumption is not only necessary if readers are to care about what happens to the characters; it is also surely well-founded. Accordingly, it is not surprising that Haggith’s Celts are recognisable ancestors of today’s ones, and that some of the social life – music-making and companionable drinking – is much like a ceilidh in the Highlands or Western Isles today. There is of course a great deal that is different, but feuding warlords are not far distant from urban gang-leaders and, if curses take an ancient form, verbal malevolence is common today, not only on social media, though its existence has revealed to many just how nasty some people can be. As for Haggith’s Pytheas, you may choose to see him as an Iron Age David Attenborough or Michael Palin.
The point is that the historical novel, when as well-imagined as this one, is not escapist literature. Certainly Haggith invites the reader to explore a strange world and far-distant time, and the voyage on which she takes the reader is always interesting, sometimes enthralling. But it’s also a novel which shows us that no matter how far removed we are from people living here more than 2,000 years ago, we can recognise ourselves in their stories, feel with them and even learn from them.
The Amber Seeker, by Mandy Haggith, Saraband, 240pp, £8.99