‘A twist on the traditional monster story’ – The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf

I don’t know why, but I always enjoy a good yarn told from the perspective of a mad person. When I read “I was a young Man; I was strong, I was something over six Feet tall and, seemingly, I was quite mad. I smiled” on the back of the book, I guessed this would be something a bit different to many novels out at the moment.

It’s set in 1791, and Wolf sets out to give us the feel of the era by using language reminiscent of the age; even the typeset reflects the old-worldy feel of the story with words misspelt and occasionally capped up. It took me a page or two to get used to the format but then I was well away with the story.

Wolf’s writing is certainly engaging and the protagonist, Tristan, is an interesting character to get to know. He is dark, both in soul and appearance, leaving him to be ostracized and bullied by many for looking like a ‘Jew’. His father barely notices him following the death of his mother and Tristan retreats further and further into himself, surrounded mainly by servants and their fairytales, with the odd stay of tutors and his one friend, Nathaniel.  Nathaniel is considered a bad influence on Tristan and goes missing one night after he makes friends with gypsies passing through the countryside.  Tristan decides not to follow them but stay behind, something he regrets for much of the book, though he senses Nathaniel at work at different stages of his life.

Tristan learns quickly, so much so, that he surpasses his tutors and is left to himself to continue his education as a teenager. He soon focuses on pain and the different types and causes of it using animals from his father’s estate. His mind, though brilliant, is also fragile and he is capable of blacking out and committing awful things, such as beating a tutor despite his superior height and weight. Tristan is isolated even more from the world as he is considered to be weak and in need of constant watching/companionship in cases it happens again.

At the age of 20, Tristan is sent to study to London to study anatomy and surgery at St Thomas’s where his fascination for pain takes a new direction with the discovery of a local brothel and a woman who accepts his quest. His two worlds collide and he takes his studies to her. Too much work renders him mad again and he is sent home to recuperate following alterations at a pub and with the police. He learns more about himself here, about his mother and father, and his origins. He also meets his future wife, someone as damaged and broken as he is.

The writing is confusing in places as Wolf manoeuvres us between the real world and Tristan’s imagined world, based on the fairytales from his childhood. The skin between the two lands is thin and things cross from one side to the other, in different shapes and forms, but still very much from a different world. I enjoyed the twist on the traditional monster story, the clash of science and fairytales and how it was still possible for the two to merge and exist together during this time.

Any Cop?: Wolf is a strong writer and I’m definitely looking forward to his next book.

Claire Snook

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