Asked about his novels, Lawrence Norfolk can give you either a very short answer or a very long one. While promoting the book last year Norfolk was quoted as having described his debut novel, Lempriere's Dictionary, as "a 500-page book about a dead dictionary writer with no sex in it". His second novel The Pope's Rhinoceros, despite being 753 pages long, is just as simple to explain: "It's got the Pope at one end and the rhinoceros at the other and eventually they meet." But his third novel, In the Shape of a Boar, evades its author's pithy precis, "I won't get into that here."
It's a fable about history, fiction and the nature of evil, using classical Greek mythology to tackle uncomfortable questions about Holocaust literature. Norfolk built a fiendishly complicated narrative for these complex questions. A reinvigorated retelling of the myth of "the Boar of Kalydon" opens the novel. This story fights for the reader's attention with a series of lengthy footnotes that challenge the veracity of almost every element of the narrative.
In the second half of the novel, we meet the author of the retold myth, Jewish poet Solomon Memel, who used the boar hunt as a metaphor for his time in the Greek resistance during World War II. We also discover that the author of the strident footnotes is a childhood friend who publishes an unauthorised annotated version of Memel's modern classic, and accuses Memel of faking his time in the resistance. Characters, actions and motifs echo through the narrative from pre-Homeric Greece to 1930s Romania, 1940s Greece, and 1950s and 1960s Paris. As difficult as it is to describe the book it was much harder to write.
Most writers of historical fiction profess an abiding love of research, but Norfolk takes it to extremes that would unnerve the doughtiest historian. He once combed the archives to find out what sort of chandelier would have been considered old-fashioned in the 18th century. "All the weather is accurate in Lempriere's Dictionary," he insists, explaining that he combed ship's records, market reports and accounts of the roads in 18th-century France to determine whether or not it was raining on the day in question.
Norfolk spent two years researching the classical footnotes for the first section. "I didn't want the book to be read as a march from the mists of ignorance to the sharp clarity of the modern moment," says Norfolk. Instead, the precision of his classical scholarship contrasts with the confusion and mystery of the World War II narrative. Though he writes novels, not histories, because he likes the leap into the imagination at the point where the records break off. He just likes to find out where that point might be. It is this uneasy but captivating duality between history and novel, truth and imagination, research and fiction that gives the book its potency. It is also this that allowed it to escape Norfolk's infamous terse critique instead forcing the reader to struggle with its unique literary identity.