Saturday, January 11, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

The next book in my TBR pile is The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. This novel was extraordinary.

Billed as a literary historical mystery, it is a smartly constructed psychological study and examination into the nature of confession. Narrated by John Reve, the priest in an isolated farming community in early fifteenth century England, the novel draws the reader in slowly but is difficult to put down.

Attention has been drawn to historical inaccuracies by some reviewers, but even though anachronisms usually bother me in serious historical novels, I couldn’t get upset about them here. The novel has an outside-of-time feeling to it that is enhanced by the unfolding of the narrative backward through time.

It begins at the outset of Lent, three days after the drowning death of Tom Newman, the wealthiest, most forward-thinking man in the village of Oakham. Was the death an accident, as John Reve tiredly assures the petty, interfering dean of the district who was called in to investigate? Was it suicide? Or was it murder?

Daily life of the village must go on, with the addition of a village-wide call to confession before Lent. The priest hears the sins and concerns of his charges, assigns gentle penance, and attempts to sort out his own feelings about the dead man, about his duty to God, about his lonely life.

Each part of the novel takes us one day backward in the life of the priest, the Dean, and the community, growing closer to the answer of Newman’s untimely death. By the time we reach the “beginning” of the story, the truth has shifted. Beautifully written and thought provoking, this book is highly recommended.