I was absolutely thrilled when I was offered a review copy of Tim Leach’s new novel. His first two books told the story of the Lydian king Croesus, a lyrical tale of a man who falls from majesty to slavery, and learns to live again, drawn from the Histories of Herodotus. This third book takes a new direction, unfolding among the icy crags and rolling valleys of 10th-century Iceland. It’s a tale of revenge; blood; vindictiveness; loyalty; and honour; but, more than anything else, it’s a story of friendship. This is the tale of the farmer Gunnar and the poet Kjaran, recounted with the tragic grandeur and poetic cadence of the great sagas, prickling with ice and flame.
Gunnar may be a farmer now, but he was once a warrior, a Viking. When he hears that a neighbour’s ghost has begun to walk the land at night, but that it can be scared by steel, he decides to hunt down the pernicious spectre. With his friend and house-guest Kjaran (our narrator) at his side, Gunnar sets off into the night. It’s something of a boyish expedition, a swaggering contest of nerves; for who really wishes to encounter a ghost? But they do; and, in engaging the ghost, they find that the truth of the story is more earthly and far more tragic. With all-too-human blood on their hands, they are persuaded to keep their silence by Vigdis, the ghost’s widow. And this is their error. In Iceland, to kill a man in a fair fight is no crime, as long as it is spoken aloud and the correct blood-price paid to the victim’s family. But, in keeping the killing quiet, to spare the dead man’s shame, Gunnar and Kjaran unwittingly bring blood-feud upon themselves – and the enmity of a very dangerous woman.
As with Leach’s Croesus novels, Smile of the Wolf is as much about character as it is about deeds. Kjaran and Gunnar’s fates are decided by the Icelandic legal system, developed to serve as the final word in a country without kings or headmen. But the way they deal with fate is dictated by their personalities: by Gunnar’s stiff, unyielding honour and by Kjaran’s more flexible, down-to-earth pragmatism. Their lives, like those of their countrymen, are governed by precious notions of honour, guided by complex codes of behaviour and recompense. And yet the law can only go so far in these far-flung, deep-folded valleys, for men sometimes choose to exact their own justice. With one misguided night-time adventure, Gunnar and Kjaran spark off a feud that will spiral out of control, rippling out to affect the lives even of those as yet unborn. Yes, it is a tragic story, but one that fits with the world in which it takes place: hard and dark, yet threaded through with great nobility, pride and resilience.
And the prose is gorgeous. I loved Leach’s poetical flair when I read his Last King of Lydia and his control of language is equally deft here – fittingly, for his narrator is a poet. He captures the importance of storytelling in a land where laws and legends are passed down orally, not in writing: the song is often what matters, for it’s in the song that a man’s deeds are recorded for his ancestors. In Iceland, a poet shapes the past for the future. I can’t resist sharing one particularly beautiful passage about the human need for poetry, for stories, for finding meaning in the shadows:
We may spend much of our lives huddled close in the dark, waiting for the sun to rise … Yet we know what beauty is, and it is the voice that sings in the night. For when the shield is shattered and the sword is blunted, when all friends have broken fellowship and lovers grown cold, we will not be alone. The poets shall keep us company.
This is not a gentle book, but it’s profoundly moving. Leach eloquently conjures up the varied landscapes of this island and its taciturn, proud people. He unfolds the tale of his two heroes with the skill of a skald, placing their deep and sensitively-rendered friendship at the novel’s emotional core. Ultimately, like the Croesus books, it feels as if the tumult of the plot revolves around a bead of compassionate stillness at its heart.
Of course, I’d hoped that Leach would continue to find inspiration in Herodotus (whom I started reading off the back of The Last King of Lydia), but his change of direction comes off beautifully and I didn’t miss the ancient Mediterranean at all. Smile of the Wolf is a book to read as the light fades in the evening, curled in a blanket, with a half-smile on your lips and an ache in your heart: its ending packs a similar punch to that of The Lions of Al-Rassan. I’m reminded of the big book of Icelandic sagas on my bookcase. When autumn comes, and the cold winds return, perhaps I’ll take a trip back in time with them.