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In Great Waters
Kit Whitfield
Jonathan Cape hardcover �12.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" states the opening to L.P. Hartley's novel The Go-Between (1953). This line is now so famous that it has become a kind of modern proverb, a clever little saying with an existence all of its own. You might never have heard of The Go-Between but, chances are, that you will know that 'the past is a foreign country'. You will know this because it obviously is, particularly when the past in question never existed. This is precisely the kind of past described by Kit Whitfield's second novel In Great Waters.

In Great Waters is set in a Renaissance-era Europe where traditional humans (Landsmen) live as uneasy neighbours to a race of aquatic humans (deepsmen). They are uneasy neighbours because the deepsmen tribes are a substantial military force that are capable of destroying military and merchant vessels at will. So, unless your nation is land-locked, you live in fear of deepsmen anger. Fear that they will suddenly take against you and fear that someone else will convince your local deepsman tribes to rise up against you.

This terrible fear has two consequences: the first is that all of Europe's royal bloodlines are made up of a combination of deepsman and landsman DNA. A good prince must be human enough to ensure the loyalty of his human subjects but also deepsman enough to be able to rally the local tribes and protect his country's coastlines and river-ways. The second is that, out of a desire to minimise the number of people capable of ruling, the great dynasties of Europe have maintained a brutal monopoly on inter-species children: all 'bastards' (as they are referred to) are burned on sight.

Because of this monopoly, almost all of the royal households of Europe are directly descended from the same landsman-deepsman hybrid resulting in a monarchical caste full of inbred monsters, genetic freaks and imbeciles. The latest generation of England's royal family seem to be particularly prone to these kinds of genetic problems after a series of accidents and assassinations leave the throne open only to an imbecilic monster and two teenaged girls. As the sitting king gets older and weaker the clock is ticking on the nation's future: will the next king of England be a monster or a foreigner?

Against this unstable and unhealthy political backdrop, Whitfield tells the intertwining stories of Henry and Anne. Henry is a bastard kicked out of the sea by his deepsman mother only to be rescued and protected by a nobleman who grooms him to take the English throne while Anne is a princess who has to navigate her way through the lethal politics of the court to keep herself alive and safe. Though beautifully paced and neatly tense, the narrative of In Great Waters is hardly complex. Indeed, it is clear from the get-go that Henry and Anne are on a collision course and that the novel's main narrative thrust will involve the two of them coming to some arrangement as they both clamber inexorably towards the English throne.

However, look past the simplistic and somewhat predictable narrative and you will find a novel of beguiling complexity and considerable thematic depth. The central theme of In Great Waters is schizophrenia. Schizophrenia not as a form of mental illness but as an expression of a nature profoundly divided, an inner tension that radiates out from the half-breed protagonists in order to infect every part of their world, including the political system. But let us begin with the surface before moving inwards to the characters themselves.

The first thing that strikes you about Whitfield's novel is the sparseness of the prose. The book's setting may well be modelled upon Tudor England but it is not the headily atmospheric world we are used to. Whitfield's England is stripped of the sensual pomp of Woolf's Orlando (1928), the colonial grandeur of Kapur's Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), and even the surreal decadence and stifling protocol of Moorcock's Gloriana (1978), or Malick's The New World (2005). It is an England that is cold, empty, angular and impoverished. An England stripped to the bones:

"Henry had formed an impression of the people of England as hungry and frightened. They kept their prey close to them where it couldn't escape, but if the prey took sick and died, they couldn't swim across the miles to find more. They stayed on little patches of ground, facing starvation if the ground didn't yield food. They were forbidden to gather what they needed: it was called stealing and ended with a rope choking the life out of them." [page 174]

Of course, our perception of Whitfield's England is largely determined by the opinions of her viewpoint characters. Henry was born into the sea and so he sees the land as a terrifyingly alien place while Anne, though native to the land, carries enough of the deepsman in her to be naturally uncomfortable out of the water. She is surrounded by plotting landsmen and able to walk only with the use of two canes. Both characters see England as a challenge; a threat. It is certainly not home. This fundamental ambivalence about the place not only mirrors the conflicted natures of the characters, it also results in a setting that is nothing less than the mirror image of traditional literary and cinematic depictions of Tudor England.

This is an England that is pretty much empty except for a few places of interest. We have London, we have the odd beach and we have the place where Henry sees the burning of a fellow bastard. With the nation's wealth concentrated in the hands of those whose lands bestride the rivers, it is almost as though England's land does not matter, begging the question as to why everyone is so intent upon owning it. It is there to be plotted over, it is there to be pointed at on a map but what is really important is the water.

Conversely, Whitfield's descriptions of the water are colourful, vibrant, subtle but utterly placeless. Compared to the dreariness of the land, the water comes as a sensory onslaught, a world of endless complexity and depth:

"Under the surface, sounds changed. The rustle of the waves ceased the instant her head dipped below the surface: water stopped her ears, filled them with its ringing silence, a deep solid lull that extended for miles. Sounds were tangible under water, felt against the ears. Against the background of damped quiet, there were endless small ticks and rattles, the clatter of stones rolling over each other in the sea's restless, curving grasp, the clicks of fish signalling to each other in a continual crackling like twigs breaking underfoot: tiny, intimate sounds, small enough to be blown away by the wind on-shore, but here, in the fresh, yielding cold, as vivid as the touch of a finger on skin." [page 88]

Indeed, the few times at which Whitfield allows her prose to become fantastical or ornamented is when the world of the sea filters through into thoughts about the land. Strange ideas that manifest themselves in a turn of phrase or an observation: an imprisoned Henry remarks that "the temptation to swim out of the window was ever present," and that a ship sailed along "splitting the wind-spackled ceiling."

In Great Waters is utterly suffused with the tension between the sea and the land, a tension that exists in the politics of the English court and the minds of the book's characters. This tension frequently manifests itself as a deep ambivalence so while Henry loathes the land his existence is defined by his desire to own a chunk of it. Similarly, when he speaks of his fellow deepsmen at the beginning of the book it is only to make clear how simple and idiotic they are compared to him. They are profoundly stupid and yet they are still nobler in his eyes than the equally stupid and timorous landsmen. This ambivalence is also present in Anne's descriptions of the deepsmen she encounters, at some points she presents them as animalistic noble savages whose simple existence trivialises courtly life, at other times she presents them as aloof ceremonial figures who are to be carefully negotiated with for the sake of the crown.

In a brilliant piece of characterisation, Whitfield has the characters' ambivalence towards their surroundings manifest itself in very different ways. Ways that seemed designed to baffle any attempt to infer a neat dichotomy between the values of the sea and the values of the land. For example, Henry is profoundly materialistic. He has no interested in or understanding of religion and his alienation from the idea of a divine being is so intense that at one point his atheism seems poised to undermine his race for the throne. Meanwhile, Anne is just as profoundly pious:

"An icon of the Virgin stood in her chamber and watched over her as she slept, but its blank, landsman's face was so strange to her that she had to close her eyes before praying to it, whispering words of entreaty in the cold dark behind her eyelids" [page 191]

The reason for these strangely clashing senses of alienation is that Whitfield is grounding them not in the ontology of the characters' mixed DNA but in the psychologies the flow from the character's upbringings. Both characters share a feeling of alienation from themselves and ambivalence about the world they live in but these feelings take very different forms because Henry and Anne have such utterly different upbringings. Indeed, Whitfield drives this point home by contrasting the introverted and careful Anne with her extroverted and caring sister Mary. Because Mary looks human, she is popular and so has social skills. Because Anne has the blue-glowing face of a deepsman she is withdrawn, her social skills flowing not from engagement with others but from a life of constant observation and speculation.

Because both viewpoint characters are estranged - both from themselves and their environments - one can speak of In Great Waters as having a pair of unreliable narrators. The duelling ambivalences of Anne and Henry mean that we get a strangely incomplete and almost inconsistent image of the book's settings. Are the deepsmen little better than animals? If they must breathe air to survive then how do they sleep without putting in to a cove overnight? Why has Switzerland not taken over the world? The paradoxes of Anne and Henry's worldviews are constantly threatening to unhinge the entire novel. They pluck endlessly at the frayed knots suspending our disbelief. But then, I cannot help but wonder whether this paradox is entirely in keeping with the setting.

While the presence of mermaids may speak to fans of fantasy and the alienation/ first contact motif may speak to fans of science fiction, In Great Waters is also a deeply historical novel. In fact, the book's recurring schizophrenia can be taken as a metaphorical exploration of the whole medieval political system.

The feudal governments of early modern Europe walked an ontological tightrope. On the one hand, the royal houses of Europe were lead by warlords, nobles who were frequently not only the largest landholders but also the people with the most military resources. They were de facto military dictatorships whose wars and inter-marriages spoke of a desire to build and consolidate their power-bases. But they were also keen to create an image of de jure authority, a politically useful myth that served to ease periods of transition and dissuade pretenders from trying to take the throne for themselves. This myth took the form of a belief in the divine right of kings. Under this mythology, the royal houses of Europe were not just warlords with a grip on power only as good as their armies, they were also anointed by God and recognised by the Church. To try and grab the throne was not merely an act of political violence; it was also a crime against God.

Whitfield explores this awkward political balancing act through the metaphor of the protagonists' mixed heritage. As in real Europe, there is nothing preventing someone with the relevant skill-set from becoming a king of Whitfield's Europe. Any bastard result of a coupling between a lonely sailor and an open-minded deepswoman could theoretically take the throne just as any real-world general or ambitious princeling could have made a grab for power during our middle ages. Just as real-world European monarchies sought to legitimate their hold on power through the invention of a mythology, so too have Whitfield's kings embraced a belief in a deepswoman stepping out of the waves in order to make Venice the most powerful nation on Earth. The politically expedient divine bloodline of our world is here re-invented as a monopoly on the mixing of landsman and deepsman DNA.

In Great Waters' metaphor also engages quite neatly with the concept of dynastic decadence. The 14th century Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun argued that the longer a dynasty sat in power, the further removed it became from its people and from the de facto power that placed it on the throne in the first place. Whitfield's novel explores this idea by suggesting that the monopoly on hybrids has resulted in the European powers being ruled over by a collection of inbred freaks. France, it is suggested, has become powerful because its bloodline is a more recent one dating back to the time when a bastard took the throne. England, in comparison, is weak because its royals are the result of too-shallow a gene pool.

Anne sees Henry as a potential partner because he is strong enough and wild enough to lead an army into battle. He is no weak-bodied prince resting upon his mythological authority, he is a future warlord; one of Ibn Khaldun's desert nomads. We can see in Henry's vitality a commentary upon class and the loosening of class barriers that came in the early modern period. A throne that tolerates bastards is surrendering to the same political and economic logic as a throne that decides to start ennobling merchants: sometimes being anointed by God is just not enough.

In Great Waters is a powerful and fascinating piece of writing. It evades easy genre classification but exudes a raw creative energy that is impossible to deny. Thematically complex, carefully written, psychologically insightful, and conceptually expansive, it is without the shadow of a doubt one of the finest works of genre fiction to emerge within the last few years. It is, quite simply, sensational.

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield




Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters




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