It’s a brave author who launches readers into a completely alien world with an unreliable and often unlikeable narrator who doesn’t quite speak our language as our only guide, but that is what The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth, does, and it works. I rarely say this, but I was blown away by this novel, and only hope it gains the readership it deserves. This is an unusual book not just for its writing but also for its provenance, as the first crowd-funded novel (published by Unbound) to be long-listed for the Booker Prize; it’s also won the Gordon Burn Prize and been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. It’s also a beautiful book – the cover of the hardback has a striking green man on it. I wrote about a talk I attended by Paul Kingsnorth last year, which offers the author’s perspective on the subject of the novel.
The book is narrated by Buccmaster of Holland, a man of the Fens relating the events of the Norman invasion. His point of view is highly subjective, and the reader quickly becomes aware that he is prone to exaggeration, not always truthful, often violent, as well as a jealous and defensive man with entrenched beliefs. Yet he is a remarkable character, and utterly believable. The story is very much his own, though it is also the story of a conquered people and the response that the apocalyptic events of 1066 and its aftermath provoke from the English. From the time when Buccmaster’s sons go off to fight the invading French, through the fierce repression of Norman rule with its brutal killings, heavy taxes and oppressive regime, we see the effects on a man who prides himself on his Englishness, who is keenly aware of his own importance as a man with a large house and land to farm, and whose place in the world is literally taken from him. When he loses everything, Buccmaster retreats to the woods, becoming a ‘green man’, like Hereward the Wake of whom the men in the woods hear. From the woods Buccmaster and his motley band fight the French – but we know, of course, that his dreams of reclaiming England for the English are doomed. In fact, one of the ways in which this novel is powerful is precisely because we know the historical outcome; Buccmaster is in many ways a tragic hero, battling hopelessly for his own place in history, hanging on to what he believes in even though every reader will know that this is futile. It’s the fate of Buccmaster himself which keeps the reader in suspense, and the drive of his flawed character which holds a strange appeal.
Much of this focus on terrible events, individual responses to them, and particularly the focus on the land, the environment of our world as a source of potential salvation, resonates with the Dark Mountain project with which Kingsnorth is involved. In Buccmaster’s insistence on a return to the land as a source of salvation, many will see resonances with modern ecological thought, though the spiritual and increasingly fanatical nature of his belief is also perhaps a warning.The motivation of the Dark Mountain project is this:
‘The Project grew out of a feeling that contemporary literature and art were failing to respond honestly or adequately to the scale of our entwined ecological, economic and social crises. We believe that writing and art have a crucial role to play in coming to terms with this reality, and in questioning the foundations of the world in which we find ourselves.’
Such a sense of how one copes with national (if not global) crisis is represented in The Wake, clearly, but the book does more than this; it questions how we structure the world around us, what we believe in, what motivates us, and how we construct our identities and sense of self accordingly. For Buccmaster, his identity comes from the land and his belief in the ‘eald hus’ – the old English gods whom his grandfather communicated with before Christianity reached England. Yet readers are able to see the flaws in his structures of belief, such as his hatred of ‘ingengas’ – foreign invaders – whilst maintaining a deep belief in gods which were Norse in origin – Woden, Thor, etc. Perhaps the opportunity for readers to deconstruct Buccmaster’s identity also invites us to consider how we have constructed our own sense of self, and whether this is perhaps founded on things not true, or clung to because it is easier to believe than the truth.
The novel is very much not allegorical; it is rooted in the history of the time and reflects deep research into the Norman conquest. Yet there are echoes of other times and places, including our own time. In the occupation of England and the terrible reprisals for any resistance, there are obvious parallels with Occupied France and Vietnam, for example. But Buccmaster’s insistence on connecting with the land of his birth as a way of saving England, burying his head in the sand rather than see the inevitability of disaster, has endless parallels, not least for ecological campaigns. Moreover, at a time when we are thinking politically in the run-up to the General Election, where immigration and debates of ‘Englishness’, ‘Britishness’ and foreign policy are rising in frequency, it’s worth reflecting on a novel which points out that perhaps parochialism is always doomed, that change is inevitable, and that Britain is, after all, not so purely British and none the worse for it, over centuries since the Scandinavian settlers of whom Buccmaster’s grandfather talks.
Reviews of the book have tended to focus on the language: it’s written in what the author calls a ‘shadow tongue’, a version of Old English mixed in with modern syntax. A note in the book explains why he did this – primarily because of his own concern with historical novels which use modern English, a concern I share (and one of the reasons I’m often dubious about historical fiction). A brief glossary is provided for the more obscure words, and after a few chapters one quickly falls into the rhythm of the prose, which avoids words introduced into English after 1066 (so no Gallicisms, then), and is therefore limited in its lexical range – but this seems to work: to be fair, I studied Old English as part of my undergraduate degree so it probably seemed less alien to me than it would to many readers, but it’s well worth getting to grips with (and in fact, about halfway through the novel I found I was dreaming with Old English words!) Please don’t let the language put you off: it doesn’t inhibit – and in fact enhances – both beautiful prose and a startling immediacy of narration. As an example, here is a passage where Buccmaster returns to the site of his house:
‘there was a mist on the land and high was my heorte to be baec in the place i had cum from and wolde always be of. the paths here was not to the paths of the holt with great deorc treows all around these was fenn paths. sum times they gan through meados and past eald small hams but micel time they gan through the fens with secg on both sides and this gladdened my heorte. the fugols that sang here was the fugols i cnawan and the heofon was the heofon of my cildehood and for a small time i felt that my heorte had cum baec to where it sceolde always be.’
As you can see, the language quickly becomes intelligible, though the odd word needs translating (fugols are birds, for example), but the descriptions of the land, in particular, are somehow stronger, simpler and more beautiful for their restricted language. Indeed, having to concentrate a bit more than usual because of the language also heightens the experience of reading the book. The fact that the whole novel is presented in present tense, in a very consistent, one-person narration, means that readers have to glean what clues they can from the text concerning the world outside Buccmaster’s narrow view, but the wider world is there, and it is often brutal and terrifying, and often beautiful.