Caught by the River

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Melissa Harrison | 7th April 2014

The Wake

Reviewed by Melissa Harrison

There’s one thing any review of poet and environmental writer Paul Kingsnorth’s first novel must mention first, and it’s the language. To tell his story of a band of rebel fighters trying to resist the Normans in the years immediately following 1066 (and all that), Kingsnorth has invented a ‘shadow tongue’, an approximation of Old English rebuilt to work for modern readers, but still surpassing strange on the page. For the most part, it means using only words that existed in the years before the Norman Conquest, and only the letters used to make them; there are no capital letters and very little punctuation, either. It’s an extraordinary feat of glossopoeia, echoed by crowd-funded publisher Unbound’s quasi-medieval, spineless binding – but demanding as it is for the reader (and author), the question is: why?

‘The language that we speak is so utterly specific to our time and place,’ says Kingsnorth. ‘Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. In order to have any chance of this novel working, I realised I needed to imagine myself into the sheer strangeness of the past. I couldn’t do that by putting 21st century language into the mouths of eleventh-century people.’

He’s right – and while scholars may find the odd fault in his ‘shadow-tongue’, and some readers may simply feel it too estranging, as a bargain entered into with an open mind and a little imagination it pays absolute dividends. Casting you adrift from all your usual signifiers, it leaves you with nothing but the actual words of Buccmaster, a ‘socman with three oxgangs’ in the Fen country, whose voice – grief-stricken, paranoid, violent and visionary – tells the bitter story of England’s subjection, a story that we seem now, strangely, to have largely forgotten:

‘i seen that the names of the focs of angland was part of anglisc ground lic the treow and rocc the fenn and hyll and i seen that when… their place was tacan by names what has not growan from that ground is not of it… then sum thing deop and eald had been made wrong. And though folcs wolde forget cwic the eald gods and the eald places the eald trees and the eald hills these things wolde not forget what had been broc.’

As you struggle, at first, to decode the language, you’re forced to imagine each thing it describes, taking nothing for granted: a fiat of defamiliarisation that also leaves Buccmaster with an enormous amount of power to tell the story of his doomed band of fighters his way – because in this unknown territory, stripped of so many of the other ways we’re used to finding meaning, his words are all you have.

And Kingsnorth is far from blind to the possibilities that brings. As an ‘unreliable narrator’, Buccmaster is an accomplished creation, a character who shape-shifts more than once during the course of the book in ways that it would spoil the story to relate. Even at his most sympathetic he is never comfortable company, on more than one occasion collapsing the thousand years between us and him with a word or phrase that lets us know that men like him have always been with us, and always will be.

It’s one of the calling-cards of the book. After only a few pages the mists of the language thin, and what looms from it then is a world that’s both deeply strange and strangely familiar. Sparsely populated with tiny hams and covered in vast stretches of forest, it’s seamed with old Roman roads and scarred by new Norman castles being raised by the invaders. Christ is tentatively worshipped, but the old gods are not forgotten; news moves only at the pace a man can walk and there is no education or written culture among ordinary folk – but while the Fenlanders’ eyes grow wide at the mention of distant Welsh mountains they have never seen and can barely imagine, they also complain that there are fewer eels to be caught than when they were growing up. It was ever thus.

Paul Kingsnorth is a co-founder of the millenarian Dark Mountain Project, and you’d be forgiven for wondering if The Wake would come with an environmental message about mankind’s relationship to his environment, and what happens when a civilisation fails. But although these concerns are both present in the book, Kingsnorth resists easy moralising so that the story (and its characters) are allowed a much more interesting complexity. ‘cilde i has telt thu how the land specs and thu has seen in this ham how folcs has teorned fro it to the hwit crist and this has been the brecan of angland,’ Buccmaster’s grandfather tells him when he is just a boy. ‘it is not in the words cilde it is not in bocs thu moste go to the holt to the fenn sleep by the waters childe in the wuds in the regn do not spec and thu will waec one daeg and the land will be in thu and thu in it.’ Kingsnorth could easily have painted this simply as wise (and rather moving) grandfatherly advice; instead, the reader is asked to question it deeply.

We know how the story ends. We know that the anglisc do not rise up and defeat the ingengas and drive them from the land, and we know, from hints he drops in the course of his narrative, that Buccmaster recalls events from a very dark place, one where he is alone and has nothing. But is he hero or villain, freedom fighter or terrorist? Are the eald gods he communes with triewe, or a manifestation of a country’s trauma and deep need – or merely a figment of one man’s imagination? In its refusal to yield easy answers, Kingsnorth’s extraordinary, unsettling tale of the 11th Century makes not only a surprisingly satisfying novel, but a deeply modern one, too.

Melissa Harrison is the author of Clay (Bloomsbury). Her next novel, At Hawthorn Time (also Bloomsbury), will be published in 2015.