This may hurt

The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, by Jack Wolf, Chatto & Windus, RRP£14.99, 560 pages

This tale of a conflicted medical man opens in 1750 and evokes historical fiction such as Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Andrew Miller’s Ingenious Pain, and Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, Jack Wolf’s debut novel, can stand alongside these modern classics.

The narrator, Tristan Hart, is an odd young man, heir to a huge house and matching fortune. Shirelands Hall is near the Uffington White Horse, a giant prehistoric hill figure in Oxfordshire, and Tristan feels a mystical attraction to the land and its folklore, which he explores with his best friend Nathaniel Ravenscroft, the local rector’s son. He is also enthralled by science and medicine, dissects dead creatures and wants to study at one of the great London teaching hospitals.

Unlike the mercurial Nathaniel, to whom he is powerfully attracted, misfit Tristan has few charms. Nathaniel arranges Tristan’s sexual initiation on the eve of May Day in a suitably transfigured local inn: “The narrow cup Boards along three sides of the low Room had come alive with Flowers. Crimson Tulips, yellow Daffodills and golden Irises billowed from blue porcelain Planters, which sate at each End of an intertwining Banner of Blackthorn, Apple and budding May that arched over the table, where rested the Punchbowl and the Glasses.”

In this heady atmosphere, Tristan witnesses orgiastic rites and encounters a beautiful young gypsy woman, Viviane. Warned not to reveal his real name, Tristan opts for “Caligula”; he already harbours strange feelings towards women and an itch to inflict, as well as relieve, pain. Their encounter ends with violence and ill omen: “Then she turned her Back on me, and her Body seemed to undergo a Metamorphosis ... Owl she became, White Owl; she spread her Wings and soared away from me, over the High Field towards the South.” What is real and what is hallucination? It is never entirely clear in a narrative that wrongfoots the reader as well as the characters.

Historical novelists can rarely resist the urge to include real people in their tales, and when Tristan gets his wish and goes to London, he meets the famous Fieldings – Henry the novelist and John the blind magistrate – and studies dissection with none other than Dr Hunter, founder of the Hunterian museum. Forever questioning God’s existence and probing the mind-body problem and man’s free will, he is half caring medical student, half delusional sadist.

This is not an easy read for anyone who likes to know what’s “really” going on. There is no split between reality and mania in Tristan’s narration. Yet his hallucinations have a mythical coherence that compels our interest. He latches on to Bloody Bones – a folktale bogeyman – as his secret identity, while his nemesis Raw Head is the King of the Goblins and in league with the enemy, Viviane. Nathaniel, meanwhile, is a traveller between the worlds of fairy and mankind. A young acquaintance, Katherine Montague, also trembling on the boundary of reality and dream, seems to Tristan to be the perfect victim-wife for a man of his proclivities.

Wolf brings us to the edge of dread in some gruesome scenes, yet we retain our sympathy for the bewildered Tristan. It helps that he is a witty narrator, with a zesty turn of phrase and a manic sense of purpose that drives the action. The capital-heavy text with its antiquated spellings (“Phantasy”, “Horrour”, “droppt”) is surprisingly unobtrusive.

Requesting further information about the mysterious-sounding author, I was directed to a piece Wolf has written about his decision to transition from female to male. It is never easy to draw conclusions about the influence of writers’ lives on their fiction but this moving tale of metamorphosis and blurred identity, otherness and liminality, with its insights into male and female sexual drives and power-exchanges, surely derives considerable force from the author’s own experiences. It is also more than an exploration of self. This is an extraordinarily controlled and artful book.

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