May 19, 2012

Review: "Hide Me Among the Graves" by Tim Powers

A couple of observations about Tim Powers and the books that he writes--First, he can weave a hell of a tale!  Second, he certainly does his homework, as his blending of historical fact within his fiction borders upon both the sublime and brilliant!  Hide Me Among the Graves is only the third novel by Powers that I've read, but it is easily the best.  The other two were The Anubis Gates and The Stress of Her Regard.

By way of background, and as some of you may know, I am a huge fan of the Victorian poet, Christina Rossetti.  Christina was the youngest sister of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood founder, Dante Gabriel Rossetti (a poet in his own right).  While a pious woman, Christina, for much of her life explored the breadth and depth of human emotion in her amazing poetry such as her long narrative epic poem, Goblin Market, or the intensely personal series of Monna Innominata sonnets, or in her slightly creepy poems The Ghost's Petition, My Dream or Love and Death

Portrait of Christina by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
I guess what I'm trying to say is that Christina Rossetti's poetry evokes a similar response in me as that when I view the art of William Holman Hunt or John Everett Millais, or even Christina's brother, Dante Gabriel--the paintings are lavishly colorful, ornate, detailed and bring to life the natural, spiritual and mythological world.  Christina Rossetti was, if you will, a charter member of the 'PreRaphaelite Sisterhood' and her poetry, in my opinion, was as intellectually creative and emotionally visceral as that of her male contemporaries in the visual and literary arts.  While Christina is perhaps best known for her epic poem, Goblin Market (1859), she was a prolific poet  who, through the course of her life, wrote something over 1,000 poems.  Like her older sister, Maria, Christina never married, and she ultimately died of cancer at the age of 64 in 1894.

What Powers has done in Hide Me Among the Graves is to create an entirely compelling and virtually believable and macabre story involving the Rossetti family and some of the characters from his earlier novel, The Stress of Her Regard.  Is it necessary to read The Stress of Her Regard first? Probably not, but I thoroughly recommend that you do so, as it will make your overall experience that much more meaningful.  In both, The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves,  Powers has created a unique blend of historical, horror and fantasy fiction in a style that hearkens back to the Romantic period and Gothic revival portrayed in the poetry of Byron, Shelley, Keats and even Coleridge, and in the fiction of Matthew Lewis, Mary Shelley, and Ann Radcliffe.  Interestingly, and relevant to both  The Stress of Her Regard and Hide Me Among the Graves, shortly after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1817, the maternal uncle of the Rossetti siblings, John Polidori, wrote a short story entitled The Vampyre (1819).  Polidori, who was also Byron's personal physician while Byron was in Europe, figures prominently in Hide Me Among the Graves as one of the immortal race of horrifying vampires known as the Nephilim.

While a horror story from start to finish, Hide Me Among the Graves is also a family story told on a Dickensian scale.  Powers completely captures the devotion to family that each member of the Rossetti family so zealously guarded and protected.  And while the Rossetti siblings, William, Dante Gabriel, Maria, and Christina are trying to rid London of their undead Uncle Polidori, the fictional characters John Crawford and Adelaide McKee are trying to find and save their young daughter, Johanna, from the clutches of the evil vampire.  During the course of the novel the reader encounters other such real-life characters as the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's artistic muse and wife Lizzie Siddal, the linguist and Dante translator Charles Cayley, and the author and adventurer Edward John Trelawny.  The other major character featured in the book is the City of London and its history, from the depths of the oldest sewers to the "Whispering Gallery" in the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.  Powers' portrayal of his characters in the London landscape increasingly reminded me of Charles Dickens' magnum opus Our Mutual Friend, both in the descriptive talents of the two writers, but also in the sheer elegance of each written word on the page.  These are characters that you can believe in, admire, and be repulsed and horrified by.  At the same time, over the course of the novel, the gritty and seamy urban environment of London is described so realistically that one almost expects to encounter little 'Jenny Wren' or the 'Artful Dodger' as one rounds the corner in the footsteps of Christina Rossetti on the trail of her vampire uncle.

Lizzie Siddall by DGR
This is good stuff, folks!  A scary and macabre tale, yet at the same time a breathtakingly imaginative and creative story grounded in the real lives of a group of intellectually amazing poets and painters at the height of the Victorian Era in the 19th century.  Finally, there are two aspects of Powers' Hide Me Among the Graves that simply cannot be overstated or oversold.  First, Powers has managed to effectively and accurately portray the complexity of the relationships between Christina Rossetti and her other family members; the tortured relationship between Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his wife, Lizzie Siddall; and even the somewhat bizarre character of the poet, Algernon Swinburne.  Additionally, and most importantly from my perspective, Powers has managed to open a window and illuminate the magnificent poetry of a relatively obscure--but certainly not minor--female poet of the Victorian Era, Christina Georgina Rossetti.  I personally cannot thank Tim Powers enough for setting out and accomplishing both of these tasks in grand fashion in this truly excellent novel!

While cerebral, Tim Powers' Hide Me Among the Graves is entirely accessible to any and all readers and provides a wonderful exclamation point to his spectacularly successful earlier novel, The Stress of Her Regard.  I highly recommend both of these amazing novels!


I am rereading the novel right now, and revisiting some of Christina's poetry that was utilized as epigraphs and/or referred to throughout the book, and I am quite likely to come back and revisit the content of this review in the near future, but this will suffice for the time being.



If, after reading Hide Me Among the Graves, you find yourself becoming interested in learning more about the Victorian poet, Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894), I strongly recommend the following:

Christina Rossetti: The Complete Poems, Penguin Classics, 2005.

Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography, by Jan C. Marsh, 1994 (My review here)

1 comment:

  1. I always find I become very curious about the historical characters that Tim utilizes in his books. I can also recommend highly DECLARE and his "Fisher King" trilogy: Last Call, Expiration Date, and Earthquake Weather. My only complaint is that Powers is a rather slow writer...!