The Western Wind
‘“Man is a foul thing, little and poor, a stinking slime, and after that a sackful of dung and, at the last, meat to the worms. In his final hour he lies with a shooting head and rattling lungs and gaping mouth and veins beating, his fingers cooling, his back aching, his breath thinning and death coming. His teeth grin grimly in a bony head, maggots make breakfast of his eyes. Man is weak and fruitless, a clothed cadaver clutching at his worldly things, a skeleton that will one day clack for want of blood and flesh; a festering mound of skin and nail, and after than an unlubricated heap of bone. Is man the master of his life? Does he own the moments that make it up? No, those moments are God’s, to add to or subtract as he wills. Man is a sinner whose life speeds him day by day towards a tomb, not a master of his body but a slave to it; his red lips will turn black and his eyes will fog over and his feet will stiffen and his tongue will slacken and his ears hiss with death.”
Amen, they said, as they trailed up the nave with gifts for the dead.’
It is 1491 and in the backwatered village of Oakham, Somerset, Thomas Newman has been found drowned in the swollen spring river. Inward-looking, insular, and beset by superstition and myth, Oakham hides many secrets, amongst them the truth behind the death of Oakham’s richest man. The mystery draws the attention of the rural dean, who tasks John Reve, the village priest, with finding the truth. ‘The Western Wind’ is Samantha Harvey’s fourth novel and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
What is immediately striking about the novel is its structure; the narrative is told in reverse over the course of four Easter days. What initially seems like a perverse exercise one might encounter in a creative writing seminar is soon revealed to be a fantastic vehicle through which Harvey can channel her skill. Imagine having the wherewithal not only to plot a slow reveal in your book (delicate enough at the best of times), but to begin on the final day of the narrative and work backwards. I can’t even begin to imagine the Excel spreadsheets/flipcharts/whiteboards she must have had to utilise to pull such a feat off. The tantalising reveal of information throughout the four days is a masterclass.
Another aspect of the novel that I thought was fantastic was the sense of claustrophobia the author creates. Oakham is isolated, a situation made worse by their bridge – a physical and symbolic link to the outside world – having been washed away by recent floods. The houses are close and clustered, the traditions primal. Sickness, sin, and sex are all played out within earshot of the villagers’ neighbours, which isn’t to say that there are no secrets here. John Reve’s confession box serves both as a fantastic narrative tool (what better way to advance the plot than with muttered half-truths told in absolute confidence), and a furthering of the claustrophobia. This sense of people living in their neighbours’ pockets and of co-dependency is brought to a fine point by the role of the John Reve – the conduit between each villager and God. Reve is clear that the only route through purgatory and to heaven is via him and his confession box, a mechanism which results in lines of parishioners queuing three times a day to tell of their sordid sins against one another. Confessors can be heard whispering by other members of the congregation, exacerbating the sense of side-eyeing and suspicion.
I always try to pick out aspects of novels that I didn’t like as much so as to give a less one-eyed assessment. It was slim pickings in a book as fantastic as this, but I did feel as though the poetic nature of some of the language slowed the pace of the story sometimes. A lot of the book is introspective by nature – when you’re protagonist spends hours a day in a confessional booth you would struggle to write otherwise – but whilst not lost in introspection I felt that the language could have been less flowery. I really am nit-picking, though; when the prose is as beautiful as,
‘I stood in the middle of the church. Its emptiness was rare. There was no confession queue, nobody muttering a prayer in the nave, nobody gossiping in the porch. The displays of wedding flowers on the chancel pillars were beginning to die, and even as I stood a witch-hazel frond fell, and its entirely soundless meeting with the ground added a new depth to the silence.’
it is not exactly a chore to read.
In summary, ‘The Western Wind’ is a wonderfully crafted novel. The strange structure allows the characters to develop in a manner which suits the setting – sideways, shuffling, and full of secrets.
*Thanks for reading, folks. Find my other reviews below*
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father. He blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com and tweets at https://twitter.com/mjrichardso0