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Hy Brazil by Gerald Killingworth (Matador)

Hy Brazil by Gerald Killingworth (Matador)

Hy Brazil is an absorbing and compelling book written in the tradition of historical fantasy, which is an intriguing genre. The narrative is set in Elizabethan England, beginning in the year 1591, but the fantastic elements, which encompass two thirds of the novel, take place in a fabled realm inhabited by the elven folk, the phantom island of Hy Brazil supposedly in the Atlantic somewhere west of Ireland and marked on several maps of the time. Legends describe this Celtic Otherworld as cloaked in mist except for one day every seven years when it becomes visible. Always, however, it is supposed to be unreachable.

The book is written in the first person by Edward Harry, and everything is perceived from his viewpoint. This is clearly stated in the Foreword which declares ‘I myself, Edward Harry, am the only begetter and so I shall be the first word in all the telling.’ The Prologue continues this assertion with the opening line ‘I was born I know not when; where and from what parents no soul has ever thought fit to inform me.’ The generalised name of ‘Boy’ soon irritates the child who insists of being called by the names of two great kings. This attitude is a key to Edward’s character as he reveals himself to be impetuous, impulsive, arrogant, a quick-witted character with a love of adventure, ambitious and self-seeking to the hilt as he ‘reached out for glory and the company of my betters.’ Edward Harry has a great many faults which frequently land him in trouble, but he is also honourable and principled, compassionate, loyal, and very likeable.

Early in the book, Edward becomes Secretary to Edmund Spenser, the poet, and I found this a fascinating section. The background is the imposition of rule by the English upon Ireland and the hardship and suffering this caused. The name of Spenser in Ireland is still one to be spoken with a curse. Edward Harry himself is proud of being English. His opinion on the situation is ‘That they (the Irish) had lost all their possessions no doubt followed because they were unfit to hold them.’ Spenser himself is presented as something of an enigma for ‘he seemed to be two men; the one quite willing to root out all Irishmen so that the other, the poet, could enjoy their countryside in peace.’

A subtle touch introduces the fantastic elements of Hy Brazil when Edward and his friend Calvagh are blown off course while at sea in a small boat and find themselves landing on the shores of the fabulous island, not knowing what adventures will befall them. ‘We were drawn,’ says Edward, ‘wherever the green line led, to the rainbow’s end, to the rim of the world, or perhaps to Hell.’ The situation, in fact, does develop into something resembling Hell for Hy Brazil is not a pretty, dream-like island with elves and fairies and sweet-talking animals but a place of brutality, violence and ongoing savagery and conflict.

Edward’s adventures are riveting and I, for one, relished the strangeness, the grotesques, and monstrosities and the ‘motley assemblage of oddities’ that creep into the novel under Gerald Killingworth’s brilliantly skilful and imaginative pen.

This is most definitely a book that once started is not to be put down. Hy Brazil is intended to be the first of a trilogy and I hope it will be. It is too good not to be continued. Every reader will want to know what happens next.

For further information and purchase of copies contact Gerald Killingworth at

Mandy Pannett 18th October 2022

Emptying Houses by Gerald Killingworth (Dempsey & Windle)

Emptying Houses by Gerald Killingworth (Dempsey & Windle)

If you relish words – their sounds and subtleties of meaning – then this is the book for you. I say ‘relish’ deliberately because Gerald Killingworth’s masterly skill turns words into something one can almost taste and savour for a long time afterwards.

‘Water Words’ illustrates this perfectly. Syllables become ‘fragments of ocean’ and their length corresponds to the different sounds and sizes of liquid. The monosyllables ‘drip’ and ‘splash’ represent the moment of the ocean’s birth but soon both syllables and water grow into ‘puddle’ and ‘rivulet’, then into ‘cataracts’ and finally, with a thrashing surge, into the magnificent, four syllabled ‘inundations.’ 

‘Tongues’ is another example of the pleasure that words bring, the joy to be found in the ‘arcane quaintness’ of ‘ariff’, ‘crizzle’, ‘fizgigging’, ‘slaughter’ and ‘budge’. But this poem is about more than the fun of playing with parts of speech. It’s about erosion, loss and the incomprehension that occurs when ‘History shifts its axis’ and once rich languages are fractured, becoming ‘irrelevant/a footnote at best.’

Concern with this erosion of language is an important motif in Emptying Houses and one that particularly appeals to me. But the main feature of this collection, the quality that makes this book so extraordinary and unique, is the way Gerald Killingworth handles humour, very, very dark humour. Anyone who has heard him read ‘A Tale of a Turd’ will know instantly what I mean. No details of the dead Viking’s excrement are spared, rather they are elaborated on – the owner of the turd, now ‘a famous exhibit’ in York’s Museum, is given the name ‘Snorri’, his eating habits are analysed by scientists who sniff ‘this marvel’, weigh it and pick it apart, concluding that Snorri ‘lived on meat’. A human touch is added as the reader imagines this character vowing ‘to eat more greens with his bacon.’ So, there is a lot of humour, laugh-out-loud humour, in the first part at least of this poem. But then we have the extra brilliant touch that Gerald Killingworth brings to all his poems – the poignancy that overrides despair, the sadness and regret that is always just below the surface. Snorri’s turd is what remains of him, the one thing he is remembered for. That is his reputation though ‘Hardly a blueprint for the whole man.’

Another poem that illustrates this blend of horror and pathos is ‘Rigid with Indignation’ where the skull of Asra, a former temple dancer, is being analysed. The poet wonders if the process might reveal her thoughts and ‘unconfessed ambition’ but any splendours, sadly, do not show up ‘in this vacuity’ which is ‘dull as an empty ice-cream scoop.’

There are also ‘vacant spaces’ in the title poem ‘Emptying Houses’ which is about the sadness of clearing a house after the death of the occupant whose ‘history is over’. Even more poignant and tender is J.I:

            Working through the house

            we found roll upon roll of it,

            Christmas wrapping paper,

            as if present-giving

            were assured for decades to come.

Impossible to read these lines and not share the grief at the waste and finality of it all.

Emptying Houses is a unique poetry collection and Gerald Killingworth is an original and special writer. I appreciate all the poems but would find it hard to choose just one as my favourite. Maybe it would be ‘Pebbles’ where the stones make a plea for wetness, to be ‘on a tide-line’ not inland and ‘faded, dusty, dim’.  Or there is the beautiful ‘In Praise of Chlorophyll’ where everything on the earth has been destroyed except for the ‘soft green throw’ of grass. But if I could only choose one piece, I think it would be ‘Habits’ which seems to echo the mood of the John Clare epigraph at the beginning of the book. It’s short and simple and perfect: 

            Take the long way round sometimes,

            B doesn’t always have to follow A.

            Scuff leaves, kick stones


            Jump into puddles more –

            remember they hold the sky.

            Peep around corners

            gaze unfocused


Mandy Pannett 20th July 2022

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