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Nov 25

Book Review: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

The TL;DR Review For Those Who Haven’t Read The Book 

What’s The Book About?

The Battle of Hastings and the Norman invasion of England.  It’s told through the eyes of an Anglo-Saxon farmer and freeman named Buccmaster.  Following the death of his wife and sons he hides in the forest looking to plot revenge against the French.  People who have read post-colonial fiction will find a number of the themes in this book very familiar.

Should I read it?

Yes, but as with Outline, I recommend you read a Kindle sample first.  The book is written in “shadow tongue” a language that Paul Kingsnorth developed over three years that mimics Old English.  This mean there’s bugger all punctuation, commons letters are missing and there’s more than a smattering of actual Old English.  As intimidating as that sounds, Kingsnorth has done a remarkable job in making the book accessible.

The Long Review For Those Who Have Read The Book

A month ago I decided that I wasn’t going to bother with The Wake.

After skimming the opening pages, and coming across words like “blaec” and “micel” and “fugol”, I’d concluded that I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude to deal with 100,000 words of pseudo Old English.  As a compromise, I decided I would spend one day reading the book so I could write the sort of review that says less about the novel and more about the reviewer’s failings.

But when the day came and I started reading the novel I discovered that, while the odd word tripped me up, there was a rhythm and tone to the book that was both accessible and engaging.  In spending three years developing his “shadow tongue” Paul Kingsnorth had achieved what he’d set out to do.  Mimic Old English but make it understandable for the modern reader.

Understandable is one thing, making a novel enjoyable is a completely different challenge.  The Wake could have been a dry account of what happened as a result of the Norman invasion of England in 1066.  With the introduction of the belligerent and cantankerous Buccmaster, a “socman with three oxgangs” (a phrase repeated so often it’s a wonder I didn’t start muttering it in my sleep), we gain a personal insight into what the invasion meant for those being conquered.

The Battle of Hastings means very little to me as an Australian whose ancestry is Jewish.  We were never taught it at school and what little I do know about the Battle comes from the Doctor Who story The Time Meddler.  (A lovely 4-parter featuring William Hartnell as the Doctor.  Set in 1066, it involves Vikings and the introduction of the Meddling Monk, a rogue Time Lord who plans to change history by helping Harold defeat the Normans at Hastings).  It’s only in reading The Wake that I realised that the Battle was more than the sort of petty power struggle you’d expect from 11th Century Europe.  It was an act of colonialism.

Having read Hild earlier this year I was aware that Christianity already had a strong foothold in England.  From a spiritual perspective then, the Norman invasion reinforced a religious way of life that was already being practised.  However, Buccmaster remains a believer in the old Gods (the one’s now made famous by Marvel Studios).  It’s an interesting narrative choice by Kingsnorth because Buccmaster’s beliefs immediately separate him from the other towns-people, even before the invasion.  His vision symbolised by a bird, that something terrible is coming, is mostly ignored.  It’s not until a “hairy” comet appears in the sky, a genuine omen of change, that Buccmaster’s warnings gain some credibility.

Buccmaster’s beliefs are representative of the broader change that is coming.  While the Old Gods might have already been shown the door, it’s unlikely that the towns-people expected the sudden power shift that resulted in the Norman invasion.  Men who were once free, like Buccmaster, were now no better than the average peasant.  What’s worse, those in power not only looked different (they shaved their heads) but they didn’t speak the same language.  I was surprised to discover that it would be another three centuries before English – or at least a version of it – was again spoken at Court.

The loss of religion, the loss of language, the loss of culture.  Buccmaster’s story is familiar because of how aware we’ve become of the post-colonial narrative.  Symptomatic of this narrative is a focus on those being colonised and their struggle to keep their culture alive.  Buccmaster’s decision to hide in the forest, following the death of his wife and the burning down of his property, is as much a move to avoid the French as it is an attempt to maintain a connection with the old Gods who dwell in the fen.  Buccmaster’s wielding of his grandfather sword, apparently, forged by Wayland Smith, a legendary master blacksmith of Norse and Germanic mythology, is also symbolic of a culture under threat.

Given the post-colonial narrative it would have been easy for Kingsnorth to characterise Buccmaster as the one true hero of Anglo-Saxon culture.  But what becomes clear is that he’s a petty little man, not willing to accept any challenges to his authority.  As the novel progresses and he finds himself at odds with the men in his posse, his paranoia and jealousy flourish into outright madness.  In his delusions the old Gods turn their back on him, more inclined to support Hereward, a historical figure who fought to push back the Norman invaders.  As it happens both men failed to stop the inevitable.  In the case of Buccmaster, though, his own flaws as a person, as distinct from an Anglo-Saxon, were what eventually led to his demise.

It’s easy to see why this novel caught the eyes of both the judges for the Man Booker and Goldsmith Prize.  The novel provides a unique perspective, a post colonial narrative, on a moment in Western history that’s more remembered for when the pivotal battle occurred then the subsequent outcome of that battle.  Kingsnorth clever use of language, his shadow tongue, not only gives us a taste of Old English but reminds us that the way we speak, the way we dress, the Gods we believe in and the laws we follow are often a product of military invasion and cultural domination.

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