Wednesday 16 January 2019

Rich, compelling portrait of medieval world

Fiction, The Western Wind, Samantha Harvey, Jonathan Cape, €28.79

The painting of Henry VIII's procession to meet Francis i of France in Calais - The Field of the Cloth of Gold - is now attributed to the British School but was previously attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger
The painting of Henry VIII's procession to meet Francis i of France in Calais - The Field of the Cloth of Gold - is now attributed to the British School but was previously attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger
The Western Wind

James Walton

Samantha Harvey is not a writer who follows any obvious trends - even her own. Her first novel, The Wilderness, was told from the perspective of an architect in his 60s with Alzheimer's and had an increasingly fractured narrative to match.

In her second, All Is Song, she imagined how Socrates might have got on if he was a present-day Londoner. (Clue: not terribly well.) Her third, Dear Thief, took the form of a letter addressed by an abandoned wife to the woman who stole her husband, based on Leonard Cohen's song Famous Blue Raincoat.

Naturally, then, her fourth is a crime mystery narrated by the priest of an English village in 1491, where the action unfolds in reverse over the four days from Shrove Tuesday to the previous Saturday.

The narrator in question is John Reve, a kind of medieval equivalent of the whisky priest in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory: a character Harvey once named as her favourite in all fiction, describing him with evident approval as "compassionate and defiant and terrified, a weak man striving to be strong". And, given what's happening in the village of Oakham, Reve has plenty to be compassionate, defiant, terrified and faux-strong about too.

The village's biggest landowner, Thomas Newman, has just drowned mysteriously in the local river, and without his financial clout, Oakham is suddenly vulnerable to a hostile takeover by the monks of nearby Bruton Abbey, who are after more arable land. Meanwhile, the rural dean, Reve's boss, has come to investigate the death, convinced that Newman was murdered. With Reve's help, he's determined to find and burn the person responsible - or failing that, somebody who might be. As a man clearly fond of his parishioners, however rackety some of their lives are, Reve must now find some way of protecting them, while also protecting himself from the dean's accusations of excessive leniency.

And then, of course, there's God. Reve may write in modern English, complete with such post-1491 coinages as "maverick" and "lynching". But that doesn't prevent the book from plunging us deep into a medieval world where the ante of all human behaviour is upped considerably by the existence of hell; where all knowledge is essentially knowledge of God; and where nothing, from cancer to lust, can be understood without reference to the direct action of a just and loving deity - the hard bit being trying to work out what on earth He's up to and why.

As a priest, Reve knows that this should be his speciality. But he knows, too, how difficult he finds it to read God's signs. So difficult, in fact, that he decides the only way of appreciating what's going on is by telling the story in reverse so as to trace it back to its source. By happy coincidence, this also allows Harvey to deploy the neat literary trick of planting innocuous-seeming sentences in the early sections and detonating them to great effect later on, as their real significance is revealed. (My only reservation about the novel is that the biggest explosion of the lot is disappointingly ambiguous.)

All of which might make The Western Wind sound a tough, even punishing read. Yet, while you certainly need to keep your wits about you, the result is a rich and sumptuous delight. At the micro-level of the individual sentences, the language manages to be both luminously lyrical and endlessly sharp. The dean, for example, has "the look of a man new to the nastiness of power and not sure about it", with "his smile... imprisoned in a narrow, burdened face". The young villager who discovers Newman's body is "all plain, buttery boyhood".

On the wider historical level, the compelling portrait of that medieval world is given added poignancy by the distant drumbeat of the Reformation - and with it, a reminder that it's a world far more precarious than anybody in it could possibly have imagined. (Whether coincidentally or not, 1491 was also the year of Henry VIII's birth.) In the flashbacks to when Newman was still alive, we hear him putting the case for people being able to communicate with God personally, without the need of a priest - an argument the mostly decent but ever-fearful Reve tries hard not to find persuasive.

After all, although he never carries his priesthood lightly, not least when faced with an attractive woman, it's now become central to his understanding of who he is.

And, in the end, for all its many other qualities - including the more traditional satisfactions of pace and plotting - it's perhaps as a character study that The Western Wind works most triumphantly, with Reve's spectacularly mixed motives impeccably delineated.

Harvey's previous books have generally been warmly received. The Wilderness was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and longlisted for the Man Booker. Nonetheless, even the most glowing reviews of her work have tended to be accompanied by a rueful acknowledgement of how underrated she is. The Western Wind will surely mean that she's not underrated any more.


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