Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

 Title: The Wake

Author: Paul Kingsnorth

Information on series: Not in a series
Audience: Adult
Rating (scale of 1-10): 9

TL;DR: Written in the author’s impression of old English, The Wake follows English farmer Buccmaster through the aftermath of the Norman invasion of 1066.  With his home, family, and perhaps his sanity, destroyed by the French, Buccmaster takes to the woods vowing vengeance.

Appeals: Immersive, disturbing, “old” English

Longer Review:  
When a comet appears in the sky over the fens and marshlands of England’s Danelaw, Buccmaster, a landed farmer, believes it is an omen of bad things to come.  The year is 1066, and the Norman conquest of England will bring nothing short of a holocaust to Buccmaster’s homeland.  The French move through the countryside, extorting money from those that could pay and killing those that could not, leaving Buccmaster’s farm burning, and his wife murdered.  From the ashes of his home, Buccmaster pulls his grandfather’s sword and takes to the woods vowing revenge.  There are other desperate men in the woods, survivors of the English army or refugees from devastated villages, and Buccmaster plans to lead an uprising to cast out the French.  First, however, the band must simply find the means to survive in the wild.  Drawing upon his grandfather’s stories of the old gods of their Saxon forefathers, Buccmaster begins to see himself as destined to cast out the French, and more, to restore the old ways and the old gods to England.
Despite being narrated entirely by Buccmaster himself, it’s clear from the start that Buccmaster doesn’t fit any modern definition of decency.  Overly proud of his position, imperious to his farmworkers and grown sons, capable of reigning in his wife by violence, Buccmaster is nonetheless intelligent, philosophical, and a hardworking farmer.  While the book contains scenes of violent action, most of the tension revolves around just how much the reader is willing to trust Buccmaster’s narration.  Is Buccmaster merely a man of his time, a typical example of a person in an age when society was clearly stratified and men maintained their positions with force?  Or perhaps, Buccmaster is something else, a man so disturbed by the violent, changing world around him that he can no longer function in it.
The author’s extensive historical research and his background as a poet are evident in The Wake, Kingsnorth’s first novel.  What is even more immediately evident, however, is that the book is not written in English.  “baerlic I had and rye sceap and hors also I had swine pasture holt my own water aeppels on many good treows,” says Buccmaster describing his farm.  Kingsnorth has Buccmaster narrate in what he calls a “shadow tongue” - akin to Old English, but updated enough to be readable with some initial effort.  Words that look indecipherable usually make sense when read aloud, and a quick reading of the author’s note about language reveals useful hints; in Old English, for example, a written ‘sc’ was pronounced with a modern ‘sh’ sound.  This turns the inscrutable ‘sceap’ into the perfectly translatable ‘sheap.’  Perhaps the largest failure of the book, in fact, is that someone chose to place these tips and the convenient glossary at the end of the book.  
The language is also serves to transport the reader back to 1066.  England of a thousand years ago is a completely foreign place, after all.  World-building can be just as crucial in historical fiction as in any fantasy novel, and Kingsnorth succeeds in immersing his reader entirely in the 11th century.  Often written by the victors, history has been kind to William the Conqueror, and Kingsnorth does an admirable job of sticking to history’s timeline while presenting a viewpoint from the less well-known side of this conflict.  Readers who can get past the first 10 pages will be satisfyingly immersed in Buccmaster’s world, and follow his harrowing journey with interest.
Harvest, by Jim Crace:
Unlike The Wake, Harvest is set in no particular time or place, at least none that is specified, but clearly in the past in a remote village.  The tide of economic progress brings the enclosure of common land and other drastic changes to the town.  Already in a stir, the insular villagers are further disturbed when several strangers arrive the same day that a fire consumes the barn of a village headman.  Atmospheric and dark, the reader can see that the village is headed towards a bad end long before the villages themselves.
The Greenlanders, by Jane Smiley
This is another historical novel where the language reinforces the world-building.  Written in a style reminiscent of a Viking saga, more like mythology than novel, it is impossible to read without being immersed in the Viking age.  This is another society that is destined for disaster, though in this case more of a slow and lingering death.  The tone is appropriately bleak and somber.  Unlike The Wake, Smiley gives equal voice to a number of characters, including the Viking women.
The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien:
The classic fantasy trilogy set in Middle-earth follows a small band of heroes in their attempt to overthrow the vast power of an evil invader.  In The Wake, the vast battles of Stamford Bridge and Hastings take place in the distance, while Tolkien, by following multiple characters, is able to present the clashes of the War of the Ring on the page.  But following Buccmaster’s band through the wilderness feels very like traveling with Frodo, and just as Frodo struggles with the ring, Buccmaster’s feels the burden of the history of his ancient sword and old gods of his grandfather’s stories.

~ Review by Seth Warburton