The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

The narrator of The Wake, Buccmaster, is a free landowner in the Fens at the time of the Norman invasion in 1066. His sons are taken by the war; his wife is raped and burned in her own house; his land is burned and left to grow wild. Buccmaster is left with nothing but a sense of vengeance and so he wanders into the fens and woods caught in the madness of war. Taking his grandfather’s sword, which his grandfather claimed came from the old English God of welder’s himself, Buccmaster seeks men who will follow him and fight against all foreigners of land and belief.

As the novel progresses the history of Buccmaster’s private battle, in which he and his father and sister clashed over beliefs in old English gods or Christ, reveals Buccmaster as a dangerous man whose religious beliefs take him to the edge of sanity.

I enjoyed Buccmaster’s tale immensely. Though it took some effort to immerse myself in the shadow prose of Old and modern English, it was worth it. There were moments of great beauty. The mystery of an untamed land rich in nature’s powers was brilliantly created by this pseudo-language, providing us with an opaque veil through which old England could be spied upon: ‘there is a sceat a sceat of light that is between this world and others and that sum times and in sum places this sceat is thynne and can be seen through. on this daeg in this ham the sceat was thynne and scriffran in the light wind and through it i colde see all that the world triewely was beyond this small place of small men and deorc and strong and of great beuty and fear was what i saw’

Despite the poetry of such moments, religious fanaticism is one of the novel’s most frightening themes, intentionally or not. For Buccmaster becomes a man made mad by belief and the old gods, powerfully rendered as they are, are weakened by the way in which he acts upon their behalf. This becomes a great question within the novel: did Kingsnorth intend to undermine the gods he resurrects? Why? In some ways I am reminded of old hagiographies (later in chronological time but no less mystical), of the recorded visions of saints like Margery Kempe and Hildegard of Bingen. Buccmaster is writing down his own visions, visions of the old gods of England who, through him, will ride again and make England strong. I suppose it is therefore inevitable that his account is masterful in its mythologizing of Buccmaster’s own life and experience, but this did sometimes feel at odds with the point of view of the narrative. I am not an old English scholar though, and cannot be sure how fixed such a thing as point of view would have been and in many ways it feels important to be able to see through Buccmaster’s reinvention of his past.

Regardless of your reading of his communion with the old gods, Buccmaster’s tale does bring old England alive, does pose live questions about our history and the recurrence of war and religion. I might have enjoyed a novel about the documented green man, Hereward, a leader of the resistance against the French invasion, but perhaps it would have catered more to a straight-forward contemporary account of historical interest rather than a dreamlike revisiting of the narrative frameworks of the past that allows for a more interesting review of our own time because we see it afresh, as if walking out of dense forest into the clearing.

The Wake is a fascinating, ingenious novel, which though perhaps a little arrogant, is brave and unwavering its singularity and vision. I’m not surprised it has been left off the short list for this year’s Man Booker; this is not a crowd-pleaser of a book, this is a genuinely interesting novel breathing new life into old myths. For me, The Wake takes magical realism into the realm of history, blowing open our contemporary, dry take on the world around us.

Next week I’ll be reading Orfeo, by Richard Powers, another book on the long list of the 2014 Man Booker prize that didn’t make it to the short list. The following week I will be reading How to be both by Ali Smith. I plan to end this year of reading and reviewing a book a week as I began, decided for myself who I feel should win the Man Booker. A list of my favourite books of the year will also follow in October. Feel free to comment, disagree, or suggest new books for me to read.