John Stetathus doesn’t want to go to Sicily. As a fretful middle-aged accountant in the Byzantine civil service in 1036, the last thing he wants to do is to leave his comfy life in Constantinople, and traipse off overland to supervise the delivery of the pay packet to the Emperor’s troops. But he has ‘a knack for languages and a fatal tendency to listen to people‘, so his fate is sealed. And what makes it even worse is that there isn’t any decent company on the way. All he has are three Varangian guards: great brutish Northerners who don’t offer the slightest hope of civilised conversation. But travel wears a man down and so, one night (having a knack for languages), he begins in desperation to talk to them.
Over the following days these hulking guards begin to take on individual personalities: the young clodhopper Harald, who claims to be the heir to the throne of Norway; and two old-timers, Kari and Eyvind, who were born on the same farm and have spent their entire lives together (not entirely by choice). When their wagon-axle breaks, somewhere between Corinth and Sparta, the four men take shelter in a ruined tomb to wait for a blacksmith. To pass the time, Kari and Eyvind decide to tell John a story. Not just a story: the story: the tale which has shadowed and shaped their entire lives. The tale of a great island way out west on the edge of the world, a seeming paradise rich in pasturage, wheat and timber, but which exacts a heavy price from those who fall under its spell.
So what did we all do, our funny collection of drifters? We sailed off the edge of the world to Meadowland… to make new lives for ourselves in the wide-open country. Dreams, dreams – to my mind, Meadowland wasn’t my shining future beckoning to me across the sunset, it was more like a bit of bramble caught in my trouser leg, pulling at me and digging in tighter the more I tried to pull away.
I’ve come across Thomas (or Tom) Holt before. His irreverent Ancient Greek novels, Olympiad and The Walled Orchard, are smart, sparkling books which have been on my shelves since I was a teenager. When I stumbled across a copy of Meadowland in a charity shop and realised that this was Tom Holt plus Byzantium plus Vikings, I naturally couldn’t resist (and forgive me for using ‘Vikings’: Kari and Eyvind would undoubtedly prefer the word ‘Icelanders’, but it has a less immediate cultural resonance).
And my verdict is… mixed. The book still fizzes with Holt’s characteristically chatty style, as the narrative baton is passed between Kari and Eyvind. Since they take it in turns to continue the story in the breaks between their watches, there’s usually only one of them present at a time, and this gives Holt the chance to play with perceptions: different versions of the same story, disagreements over what happened, hidden motives, or long-standing grudges that the other narrator has never quite noticed. It’s a multi-layered narrative which builds up until you have a very clear idea of the two personalities. By the end of the book I could hear their voices in my mind, even if I wasn’t quite sure what they looked like: Kari lively and bubbly, like quicksilver; Eyvind slower, more thoughtful and more maudlin.
However, the narrative never really seemed to get into gear. I’d been hoping at first that I would get to learn a little more about John’s history, and about the Varangians’ status in Constantinople, and I was looking forward to seeing what Sicily might have been like under Byzantine rule; but these other aspects are little more than a framing device for the story of Scandinavian voyages out to the coast of North America. I have the feeling this might be a deliberate misdirection of our expectations, but for me it didn’t quite come off. Likewise the narrative is resolutely focused on the workmanlike, daily drudgery of trying to settle a new place. There are exciting moments – the encounters with the ‘leather-boat people‘; Freydis’s vendetta against their fellow Icelandic settlers – but I think Holt is making a point that, if you’re an ordinary working man, discovering a new country is just more hard work in a slightly different place. That’s an important point, no doubt, but after a while the various trips to Meadowland (deliberately?) blend into ample descriptions of cutting timber, forging iron, boredom and cabin fever. It is written well, but it lacks the sudden bursts of flavour or imagination which make his classical novels so memorable.
While reading the book, incidentally, I assumed that I’d happened on an early novel, one where he hadn’t quite honed his craft; but that’s not the case. This was first published in 2005, five years after Olympiad, but it feels considerably less confident as a piece of storytelling.
Nevertheless, it has a great yarn at its heart. The story of these men who crossed back and forth across the ocean is the stuff of epics, but Holt playfully tells it from the perspective of the poor sods who had no choice in the matter, but were moved here and there by the will of their social superiors; and, perhaps, by the lure of Meadowland itself. Their grim exasperation is sometimes comic, something poignant: there are many meditations here on what makes a place ‘home’. In one particularly moving section, Eyvind tries to explain the Icelandic justice system, in terms which feed back into his deep-seated reservations about Meadowland: it is, quite simply, a place he isn’t meant to be:
Greeks I’ve talked to since I’ve been here, they think we Icelanders are soft because the most a court of law can do to you back home is make you an outlaw, so you’ve got to leave your house and move away to another part of the country, or overseas. Soft; I don’t think so. I think it’s the cruellest thing you can do. I mean, everybody dies sooner or later, but having to live in the wrong place, in a place that’s not meant for you to be in – that’s cruel. And I never even did anything wrong.
Despite its strange quality, the story is thoroughly researched (Holt studied ancient history, which explains both his meticulousness with the facts and, perhaps, why his classical novels have more vibrancy). It was rather fun to reconnect with characters I’ve read about in other books on this period, most notably Leif Eirikson, Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir and her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni, the latter being one of the key points of disagreement between Kari and Eyvind. Yet none of these famous figures holds the limelight. Significantly, they come and go, orbiting the central figures of Kari and Eyvind, who through their own misfortune have become experts on this strange new country and represent the one constant in the Meadowland voyages.
In short, it was a perfectly pleasant novel, and if you are specifically interested in the Vinland settlement, it’s fun to read; though I’d also recommend the other books I’ve read about Gudrid: the fictional Sea Road and the historical Far Traveler, as well as the original Vinland sagas if you really want to get your teeth into the subject. However, if you’re tempted by the book (as I was) because you’ve read and enjoyed Holt’s other historical novels, I’d suggest a little caution. It’s still a good story but I felt that it doesn’t quite have the gleeful, tongue-in-cheek flair of some of his other books.