Wednesday 1 March 2023

Review: Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert

Zoe Gilbert’s Folk was one of my favourite books of a few years ago, I loved how she took folk and fairytales and plaited them together to create the island of Neverness. I also loved how textured the world was, with plenty of description of smell, taste and touch. My only disconnect with the book was how the non-existent Scottish island felt walled off and detached from the real world. In Mischief Acts, Gilbert spins a similar web of folktale and myth but grounds it more fully into a real place and shows it affected by time. Even more fun for me, it’s a place a know fairly well.

Mischief Acts is the story of Herne the Hunter. A mythological man of the forest with a crown of stag antlers, he was first mentioned by Shakespeare but later written about by arrange of other authors including one of my favourites, William Harrison Ainsworth, who did his thing and rejuvenated the myth for a few more years. Gilbert creates an origin story, Herne is the king’s favoured hunter but that causes envy among the other courtiers. They wish harm on him and he is killed when a stag rushes for the king and he steps in the way. The wizard Bearman brings him back to life by placing the antlers on his head but also taking away his hunting skill. Ostracised from his peers, he hangs himself but returns as the spirit of The Great North Wood.

The book then tracks the fate of this wood and it’s guardian spirit through the course of history and into the future. Often there is a form of Bearman, existing as his antagonist. Herne’s form, name and presence changes as the forest does but whenever he does appear, some form of mischief will follow. As such, the mischief is tied into the unpredictability of nature and is compared to the desire for order and control inherent in man (in these stories a variation of Bearman). 

One of the best elements of this book is how the tone, genre and structure of the book completely fit the theme. Each story is set in a specific time period and the species of writing matches it. The origin story is told as a ballad/prose poem, there’s a renaissance set story which takes advantage of the eras dabbling in dryads, nymphs and other Arcadian visions, there’s a gardener’s almanac, a scientist’s notebook, a modern relationship drama. The stories set in the future try and evoke futuristic slang, probably the closest element to a misfire, but I loved the intent.

As nature is understood and the wood is built on, Herne himself becomes implied rather then seen. He becomes a concussion vision, an acid trip vision and the last thoughts of a dying (and decomposing) man. I loved how, as the enchantment of nature diminished in popular understanding, so the enchantment of the book is diminished - I also loved the positive notions of the ending, where a re-wilding and re-enchantment can take place. The book argues how a connection with the mischief of mother nature is also a connection with magic and our natural, animalistic selves. This magic is also threaded through the books by the songs between each story and the charms immediately before them.

What’s more, these are good stories. I loved the sweetness and strangeness of the lesbian acid-trip story where the word nymph plays two roles. I enjoyed the farce of the scientist’s story, balloon-trip accident and all. As a child who grew up among trees downed by the 1987 hurricane, I loved how it was described as Herne’s howl of pain and anger. I also enjoyed the use of historical personages and events, from Edward Alleyn to the scandalous eighteenth century actress Ann Catley. Did you know it was Herne who burnt down the Crystal Palace? I’m glad he left the dinosaurs though.

While I loved Folk, Mischief Acts is a definite improvement, tying the myths into the landscape and more importantly into how the landscape changed over time (and the guess at what might happen to it next). Herne himself is never particularly knowable as a character, he exists as a force but the characters he does affect are well developed. The threads that link the stories stop the book feeling fractured but the different tones and genres re-engage each time. I really loved this book and am eager to see what Zoe Gilbert writes next.

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