Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert

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Review by Annabel

At this early stage of the year, it may be a bit forward of me to suggest that I may have found my book of the year, but with Mischief Acts, it could be true! This book resonated on so many intertextual and personal levels of reference with me, that I’m thinking about it still and have resorted to keeping it on hand to refer to when another thought I want to follow up occurs to me.

Mischief Acts is Gilbert’s second novel, and like her first, Folk, which was longlisted for the 2019 International Dylan Thomas Prize, is presented as a story cycle. Folk told the stories of many of the inhabitants of a remote island, blending their lives and lore with Earth magic into a whole portrait of a generation in which a leading character of one story might pop up in another in support or in passing. However, Mischief Acts does it differently…

Gilbert starts her story cycle in 1392 and then moves up the timeline through sixteen stories grouped into three sections into the near future – only the last four stories follow some of the same unchanged characters.

There are two constants which inhabit and ground the whole cycle: the first being the geographic location of the Great North Wood in South London, the second being the legend of Herne the Hunter.

A large swathe of South London from Deptford down to the northern edges of Croydon used to be covered by woodland – known as the Great North Wood. Each tale is set within a part of that original area and incorporates documented history, local folklore and legends of the time. Naturally as we move up the timescale, the wood changes in size and character, from hunting ground and hiding place to land clearance and the enclosures to the present small remaining patches of woodland, and on into the future where Gilbert imagines how the wood might survive the ravages of climate change. The Great North Wood is more than just a place, it is a character in this cycle in its own right.

The second constant is the folkloric legend of ‘Herne the Hunter’ and in each story, he takes on a slightly different persona, but in the first story, which is told in the form of a prose poem, Gilbert tells us of how Herne became the leader of the ‘Wild Hunt’ and de facto soul of The Great North Wood. We begin in 1392, with King Richard II, here known as ‘Dickie’ hunting in the Great North Wood with his courtiers who are all keen to be his head hunter, a role which befalls to Herne. The others are all jealous and want his downfall. But Herne gets gored by a stag protecting the king.

We heard the shouts, in the wood,
And we heard the hoot, the shriek.
He’s ours, they called.
We’d missed it. The chance of victory.
The chance to take Herne’s place, that was.
For we saw how he was fading.
His fingers all mired in the purple-brown that spilled,
And the king’s open mouth.
That was when Bearman came.
Bearman, whose magic sours the wood.

Bearman cuts off the stag’s antlers and binds them to Herne’s head, pours a potion into his mouth and Herne is reborn, but he’s not the man he used to be hanging himself from the Great Oak in the wood. The spirit of Herne the Hunter thus inhabits the wood and is ever-present in one form or another through the rest of the story cycle.

The extent of the Great North Wood via Wikipedia

The three sections of the book are prefaced by maps of the extent of the wood – at its largest in the beginning part, ‘Enchantment’. The second section, ‘Disenchantment’ beginning in  1760 charts the wood’s gradual decline. The third, ‘Re-enchantment’ comprises the three tales set in the future and how maybe the wood can be rewilded and live on. Each story is also prefaced firstly with a poetic ‘chant’, from skipping rhymes to traditional song lyrics and poems and then a short ‘charm’ – both echoing the themes within the tales.

Herne takes on many guises throughout the tales. One favourite was 1606 story when he turns up as the Lord of Misrule one Christmas in a wonderfully funny and bawdy Shakespearean pastiche based on The Merry Wives of Windsor crossed with Twelfth Night, narrated by the spoilsport ‘true Protestant’ Burrman, (another incarnation of the first tale’s surly magician) who also invokes that famous ‘exit’ from A Winter’s Tale! I also loved the following story, ‘Gallows Green’ set in 1691, which followed one lady’s obsession with a new highway robber, ‘Oberon’, who may be a she, not he, as debated by the chorus of charcoal burners at Thornton Heath, where in reality they hanged many a highwayman.

The later evocations of Herne are often more subtle, but he is always there in the woods, always full of mischief, protective of the woods and vengeful when threatened as when he gets out of control in the story ‘Hurlecane’, set in 1987 when a hurricane brought down trees all over southern Britain, but particularly around London where many mighty oaks were felled. 

Another illustration of Herne’s protective spirit is the tale set in 1936 on the night that the Crystal Palace, home of the Great Exhibition celebrating our industrial progress, burned down. The daughter of the Palace’s manager is there with her daddy, when she meets a man in the park there.

‘Watch this,’ the man said to me, and he positioned himself against the wall so that, with the shadows cast by the streetlamp and the trees, he looked as if he had antlers sprouting from his head.

Then he offered me a cigarette. The flame from his lighter came at once and swept the horns away.

Gilbert takes in the disaster tourism that instantly happened for real that night, ‘even Winston Churchill joined the crowd, and shook his head, and pronounced the end of an era.’

The fire at the Crystal Palace on Nov 30, 1936. Picture source unknown.

There are other recurring characters in different guises apart from the already mentioned Bearman, there are dryads and naiads and Effra, the spirit of the tributary of the river Thames that runs through the wood. The Green Man who is there in Herne’s persona much of the time also becomes the name of a pub in 2011.

Gilbert has obviously had huge fun writing this novel. I’ve only touched on a few of the particular stories and styles within in this review, else it would be pages long! From prose poem to folktale, from a gardener’s diaries to being away with the fairies, not forgetting the final contemporary and spec fictional tales, the variety of forms she uses are many. Some of the stories are contemplative and subtle, others overt pastiche or full of drama. However, despite all these differences she manages to achieve a wonderful picture over told over those 700 years which coalesces into a vivid history of its location and folkloric influences. What’s more her final stories bring a possible positive future as the wood asserts itself again, aided by rewilding.  I also liked the ‘Introduction’ and ‘Appendix’, both ‘written’ by academics, the former introducing the two key themes of Herne and the Wood, the latter a lecture looking at some of the author’s research and influences for the book – both invaluable towards answering a few of the questions the stories raise – but definitely part of the novel’s arc.   

This novel has drama, comedy and tragedy. It is clever, witty, beguiling and definitely full of mischief. It also has soul, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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Annabel is a Co-Founder and editor of Shiny New Books. She enjoyed this book so much, she’s written a blog piece to complement this review here.

Zoe Gilbert, Mischief Acts (Bloomsbury, 2022). 978-1526628800, 448pp., hardback.

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  1. Oh, I love it when a place becomes a character in a book! Lovely review, thanks!

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