Monday, 20 March 2017

The Monstrous Child, by Francesca Simon

Hel, half god half giant, daughter of Loki and corpse from the waist down is the reigning queen of the underworld. Not through choice, but because she was flung there by Odin, the one-eyed seer of everything. She's a goddess, but one with the worst gig going.

I'm not even a novice at Norse mythology. I know Thor had a hammer and Thursday and (probably) Thunder are named after him, Odin had Ravens. That's pretty much it. I found the relationships between gods and gods, gods and giants, giants and people, gods and people to be very confusing. I just wasn't feeling the mood and the atmosphere that the book conjured up. Yes it's unusual, but I'm not sure that it was enough to win me over.

I found the narrator, Hel, rubbed me up the wrong way. She starts her story with her birth, to a mother who wasn't that keen, way back before the beginning of time. I suppose it's something of a saga. She is, for me, too knowing, too sly, to bilious. Yes, even for keeper of the underworld. Where she probably thought of herself as sassy and fearsome, she just sounded like a stroppy, bratty child, lashing out at anyone who'd listen. Maybe she was. She muses on the pointlessness of poetry, references the passing of time and its ultimate redundancy for immortals such as her quite frequently, and eventually I was just getting kind of frustrated with it all. Yes, we know you're immortal. Yes we know you don't like the dead. What else is going on down here? I just found her to be overwhelmingly surly, and by the time I started to feel an inkling of sympathy for her, it was far too  late.

Hel spends the middle section of the book pining for married god-man Baldr, the one person that she encountered that wasn't disgusted by her during the brief interlude that she lived in the world above with the other gods. He spun her around once, so naturally, that must mean he is in love with her. That's about all you're going to get in the plot department, apart when things in the god world above start to get a bit end of days.

It's certainly a unique book, one with a very unusual protagonist. I found that whilst I wan't enormously keen on Hel, it might well have been entirely intentional, and I found the first person voice to be very consistent, characterful and very well executed. I felt that Hel was a whole, complete person, even if I wasn't finding her massively appealing. It's entirely possible that my lack of knowledge about Norse mythology prevented me from getting too into this. Interesting, but I don't think it was for me.

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