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Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
(Victor Gollancz, 14.99, 1112 pages, trade paperback; hardback also available, 20.00; published 15 June 2000. Mass market paperback, 9.99, published 15 February 2001.)

There's an old silly riddle which runs like this:

What is heavier, a ton of feathers or a ton of gold?

Here, the proffered response will confirm the canniness (or otherwise) of the riddler; but let us assume that the unexpected sleight has found a mark.

Momentarily matadored, wrongfooted, sideblinded, the questionee plumps for the ton of gold: seeking solace in the appreciation of gestalt by acknowledging that the riddle's entirety consists of various parts, but failing to analyse them adequately. A riddle makes a fool of everyone, after all.

cover scanFor down somewhere - in brains as league-deep as the ocean a few of this extraordinarily wily book's protagonists must explore, for evidence of a long lost city and civilisation - we pose a similar query every time we snatch and heft a volume as huge as Ash is to our chests. Will the book be a ton of feathers or a ton of gold? And which do we want it to be? Why, gold, of course: Mary Gentle's magnum opus is well over a thousand pages long - it arrives as the largest single fantasy novel ever - and who could bear the thought of mouthing through a ton of feathers, or realising early on that the plot does not warrant such extravagant expenditure.

Ash is a ton of gold. Or rather, Ash is two tons of gold and bodily slime (after all, any psychoanalyst will tell you that gold and ordure are linked in the subconscious) and while reading you feel plates shift. The subtitle being "A Secret History", and the book dealing (among other things) with the power of palimpsests, you blink up from another hibernatory reading session - a smidge confounded that your living quarters are just as you left them. No hurricane has wriggled through your room.

But it's a secret history about what? About a female warrior named Ash, who might have lived a successful but violently succinct existence in the fifteenth century... or might have been a blueprint for what we know about Joan of Arc. That is unless all the stories about Ash - including, supposedly, some biographies - are fiction, hokum, rumour. It is the job of one Perce Radcliffe, a sober and committed historian, to dig into Europe's past to learn the truth. "I make no apology for presenting a new translation of these documents which are our only contact with the life of that extraordinary woman, Ash," Radcliffe writes on the very first page. Soon he learns, however, that a country's memory is not always sound: a country can be an unreliable narrator too; and the task is nowhere near as uncomplicated as he'd imagined. For example, one of the emails that he receives from his publisher reads as follows:

"Both the British Library and Metropolitan Museum now classify it (an early Latin text) as Mediaeval Romance Literature. as FICTION, Pierce!"

Quite rightly, she wants to know from her author what is happening. A past, perhaps, does not always want to be written about. A little later, Radcliffe writes back:

"I don't know what is going on, but I do know we are in danger of Ash vanishing into think air, into a fantasy of history... But I was - and I remain - utterly convince that we are dealing with a genuine human being here, beneath the accretions of time."

What is "known" about Ash, however, is that she had what these days would be called a dysfunctional childhood. "No one bothered to give her a name until she was two years old. Up until then, as she toddled between the mercenaries' campfires scrounging food, sucking bitch-hounds' teats, and sitting in the dirt, she had been called Mucky-pup, Grubby-face, and Ashy-arse." Aged eight, she is raped on the very first page. She is a prostitute and then a very successful warrior, having earned the respect of many, many fighters. She is visited by majestic visions of a lion; and there are very strong hints that she had machines on her side - she had golems. All of this the historian must prove... or disprove. And it's a fascinating plate-spinning act to watch. The story of a woman who might not have lived, who might simply disappear into air before Radcliffe (and therefore before our very eyes), being fought by a protector of history. Effectively, in Radcliffe, Ash has found a more deadly opponent than many.

Sheer folly it would be to attempt to paraphrase a life of a woman (if life it was) that has taken the real author, Mary Gentle, a brick-sized book to tell. I won't insult the author by trying to bullet-point a masterpiece, because masterpiece it is. A wealth of emotion, all written in tough, vigorous language (as many swear-words on the page as in Irvine Welsh), and this is a book that will keep the author's name alive indefinitely. Unless it doesn't want to be kept alive. But that is another story.

Review by David Mathew.

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© David Mathew 7 October 2000