Saturday, December 12, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

I heard the buzz a few months ago about the newly released (in the U.S.) historical novel The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth and put it in the "must read" category. Having just completed it (explanation to follow) I have to agree with all the superlatives that have been flung at it. This is a truly original and astounding work of art.

The novel, a tale of England in the days of the Norman Conquest, is narrated by Buccmaster of Holland, a small freeholder whose grandiose self-importance is not supported by any actual influence in his tiny hamlet. When the wars start and England is swarmed by Normans, Buccmaster’s world is destroyed. He becomes a guerilla warrior of sorts, the self-proclaimed leader of a reluctant band of men as broken and defeated as he is.

I had anticipated a more inspiring story of resistance against oppression. But Kingsnorth is more inventive than that. He gives us a painful, horrifying story of violence, selfishness, and hopelessness.

Not content with providing a brilliant account of a frustrated and rather depraved anti-hero, an unreliable narrator whose true nature is slowly revealed over the course of the book, Kingsnorth is determined to immerse the reader fully. For that, he needed to use language appropriate to the time. It was not enough to weed out modernisms, because all our language is too modern. He invented an Old English shadow language and put the whole narration in the mouth of the protagonist. This is a difficult book to read, but worth every bit of the effort.

So here’s my confession. The effort was not mine. We read the book as our family read-along choice. At this point in the evolution of our family’s evening reading-together-time, this means that my husband read the book aloud to me and my teenaged son. (The language got a bit uncomfortable, but it isn’t like my son doesn’t hear worse at school.) Hearing the book is a wonderful way to fall into the rhythm of the language. It took a short while for the pronunciation to gel, and for us to grasp the meaning of the unfamiliar or vaguely familiar words, but once accustomed to Buccmaster’s voice, it became easy to slide into this world that was at once surreal and all too real.

For literature lovers, historical fiction and history fans, this book should be on the must-read lists.



1 comment:

  1. This was on my to-read list after hearing the author on NPR, so I am excited to hear that it's worth the effort! Now even more eager to read it. Your family read-along program sounds terrific as well!