Books

Drowning in superstition: a magnificent thriller of medieval England

24 March 2018

9:00 AM

24 March 2018

9:00 AM

Samantha Harvey is much rated by critics and those readers who have discovered her books, but deserving of a far wider audience than she has hitherto gained — so much so that just before Gaby Wood’s appointment as literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, the critic wrote a lengthy exploration of Harvey’s prodigious qualities, describing her as ‘this generation’s Virginia Woolf’. The reasons for her relative neglect are not complex: her work is deeply serious, her novels rarely mining the same seam; she has featured on numerous long- and shortlists but failed to scoop any major awards; and we don’t see her on the telly or at the head of newspaper columns.

I’m not sure about the comparison to Woolf, style-wise, but Wood’s judgment is bang on otherwise. And perhaps Harvey’s fourth novel will change that. Leaving aside its structural daring and prose at once precise and suggestive, it is an exhilarating mystery that pitches familiar tropes — a bereaved and fearful community, a melancholy investigator and his unsympathetic superior, a frantic search for deeds and wills — into the heart of late 15th-century rural England. The collision of the early modern and the present-day is startling and energising, and never does it seem stagey.

A man has tumbled into the river that cuts Oakham off from the surrounding countryside, and is presumed dead; as the novel opens, his body is spotted, and promptly disappears once again, leaving only his green shirt as evidence. It is Shrovetide, and the villagers are preparing for Lent by giving themselves over to feasting, dancing and other pleasures of the flesh, but it is not the suspension of revelry that hangs over them, but the loss of Thomas Newman, a beacon of charity and morality who has supported efforts to build a bridge and thereby improve their connections to the outside world. That is no small thing: Oakham, in the words of its priest John Reve, is ‘a village of scrags and outcasts’, its crops regularly soaked to uselessness, its inhabitants filled with superstition.


Perhaps its sole boast — and this is both unverified and of ambiguous benefit — is that its church contains ‘the only confession box in England’, which Reve has wheedled out of the dean on the grounds that secrecy will prevent the villagers from seeking out travelling friars to protect their anonymity. In fact, it is a poor thing — a cramped botch of screen and curtain with no roof — that disguises nobody. And yet, insists Reve, ‘our souls are handed over best in blindness’, a theory he has a chance to test when the dean insists that all are called to confess their sins in order to flush out the key to Newman’s death.

Harvey’s experimental flourish is to tell the story in reverse, with Shrove Tuesday giving way to the three days leading up to it. The effect is not merely disorientating for the reader, creating a constantly reconfigured kaleidoscope of details and impressions, but complicates and intensifies our reaction to every single character: Reve, careering between grief, spiritual meditation and practical exigencies; the dean, with his ‘nose for the nasty’ and his fieldmouse’s heart ‘always pounding in a tiny, courageless chest’; a dying woman, consumed by guilt and prone to baseless confession; a villager plump with ‘buttery boyhood’; a man of diminishing wealth betting his fortunes on doomed enterprises.

‘History’ is largely absent, but underwrites every line: this is a country only a few years after the end of the Wars of the Roses, on the brink of seeing a pretender to the throne, and culturally at odds with the colourful, carnival Catholicism of continental Europe, from which the odd pilgrim — including Newman — returns. At the same time The Western Wind is also timeless in its determination to probe the limits of faith; the extent to which Reve’s commitment to God is tested by the ‘livid little demons’ that lurk in the roiling river.

It is a novel to read and then to read again, with a second go revealing an even more expert and carefully controlled patterning and intent and allowing Harvey’s striking topographical and animal metaphors to percolate further. Literary reputations are almost entirely unguessable, and sometimes unfair; but, early in the year though it is, this must surely be in the running for one of its best novels.

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