This is my review of “The Western Wind” by Samantha Harvey.
It is Shrovetide 1491, the year presumably chosen to mark the end of the long medieval period of Catholic monopoly of belief mixed with intense superstition held by those at all levels of society.
John Reve, priest for the isolated and impoverished Somerset village of Oakham, is woken from his troubled sleep by the young neighbour Carter who has found the body of a man thought to have drowned three days earlier. The missing man is Newman, a charismatic, wealthy relative newcomer seen as the only hope for improving the fortunes of Oakham, largely by financing the construction of a bridge which will establish trading links with the wider world. His largescale purchase of local land, his novel religious ideas picked up from travels in Europe (“Newman wanted to find his own way to God”), perhaps illicit relationships with local women, suggest a number of potential enemies, although having lost his wife and child to “the sweating sickness” he may of course have taken his own life. Since he died “unshriven”, his tortured soul will cast a further blight on the village. His loss will also increase the likelihood of the village lands being acquired by the greedy monks of nearby Bruton, and it is unclear whether the dean from Wells, so keen to investigate the death, is really on the side of Reve and his flock.
This theme has the potential for an intriguing medieval mystery, which proves to be psychological drama and atmospheric portray of imagined life in a C15 village rather than a Cadfael type detective story. It is highly original in both style (poetic and using medieval or possibly “made up” words) and unusual structure, a very literary historical murder mystery, ambitious in its device of moving us back in time from Day 4 to Day 1 of a crisis. This plays on the idea of reversing time, and therefore altering the possible course of events.
To what extent does Reve remain an unreliable narrator, even when he discovers or reveals more evidence? The modern tone of the language (“Oakham is a low-hanging cherry waiting to be picked”) helps us to relate to the characters but sits oddly with the deep superstition over, say, “night air” contaminated by the evil spirits allowed by God to test us. The possible anachronisms which have bothered some reviewer did not trouble me unduly. Would John Reve have preached as he did in English, when I thought medieval services were rituals conducted in Latin? Would people really be putting sugar in the tea which would not be introduced to England for decades? Would Reve use an admittedly very makeshift confessional box, when this device is said to have been invented by Saint Charles Borromeo in the sixteenth century? The idea of revealing the background to a murder through the confessional is fundamental to the story, but perhaps historical inaccuracy does not matter too much, if the author needed to show a community in the very precise year of 1491, the year before Columbus discovered the New World and the concept of a round earth orbiting the sun began to crack apart the stranglehold of the Church on exploration of ideas and pursuit of fact-based knowledge.
I understand that the slow revelation of facts, the preoccupation with waterlogged mud, bodily dirt and the general misery of hard, poverty-stricken lives are necessary to the novel’s ambience, cues for what many will regard as a brilliant work of sustained creative writing. However, despite the thread of wry humour, I found the continual repetition and wordiness quite tedious, calling for more ruthless editing. I would have liked more development of Newman as a “Renaissance, Reformation” man, whose mind has been opened by in his European travels, in contrast to Reve, a perceptive man but limited by his narrow experience.
It was only in the last section “Day 1”, possibly because the end was in sight, that I felt fully engaged. I then felt the need to return and read Day 4 again, to check that the plot “stacked up” and to appreciate the impact of the true conclusion, which one could easily miss noting at the end of Day 4. This seems to be to be ambiguous in an interesting way, but I am not sure it is satisfactory for it to be so “buried” in the text and would like to hear the views of others on what they made of the “true” ending.