By: Paul Kingsnorth
Format/Source: Galley courtesy of the publishers via NetGalley
Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next…Set in the three years after the Norman invasion, The Wake tells the story of a fractured band of guerilla fighters who take up arms against the invaders. Carefully hung on the known historical facts about the almost forgotten war of resistance that spread across England in the decade after 1066, it is a story of the brutal shattering of lives, a tale of lost gods and haunted visions, narrated by a man of the Lincolnshire fens bearing witness to the end of his world.
Written in what the author describes as ‘a shadow tongue’ – a version of Old English updated so as to be understandable for the modern reader – The Wake renders the inner life of an Anglo-Saxon man with an accuracy and immediacy rare in historical fiction. To enter Buccmaster’s world is to feel powerfully the sheer strangeness of the past.
I heard of this book in passing last year when it was longlisted for the Man Booker (first crowd-funded novel to be longlisted) but then it slipped out of my radar again. It caught my interest again earlier this year when I found out that actor Mark Rylance bought the film option for the book. I re-read the premise and what made the book unique, which piqued my curiosity. I was approved a galley copy of this novel courtesy of Unbound via NetGalley. This book was released on 20 March 2014.
My initial impressions definitely focused on the writing. It does take a good number of pages to get a feel for how the language works, understand how certain letters sound, and what certain words may mean in contemporary English; I suppose a drawback to reading the book in an eCopy format is that the glossary is at the end rather than something you can flip back and forth to at your convenience. The shadow English is a bit of work, it can be tough and requires a lot of focus, but it does colour the story and the way the reader approaches the story, Buccmaster’s world and society of the time. I also found that reading it out loud helped. Nonetheless it’s really impressive that the entire book was written in this manner.
Story-wise, it was a curious read albeit the pacing had its moments. It starts off and the reader has no idea where the story is headed: there are signs and portents, you know that there’s tension in the air and you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. It does, but then the story hits another lull of sorts. Maybe I’m just used to some faster-paced novels, but the action creeps, and because it’s written differently it doesn’t help. Events slowly begin to pick up when Buccmaster decides to revolt and gains a small band of men to join in the revolt against William the Conqueror (love that they call him by his French name here). It was also intersting to follow Buccmaster and his lot as they try to recruit more people from other communities to their cause, with varying results.
My favourite part of the book had to be the ending though. Buccmaster for the most part had been a strange character–he’s crude, he’s paranoid, he’s suspicious, his treatment of people left for wanting, and has a bit of self-importance going for him. I was also wondering for most of the time whether he had some kind of mental problem as the italicised dialogue peppered throughout the text turns out to be an internal dialogue. Amidst the lulls, the reader learns that there was a bit of family strife in his background, a tense relationship with his father and reverence for his grandfather. Despite of his harshness, I found I really felt for him at the end
Overall I’m glad to have finally read The Wake. It was intriguing and unique to read the book in its shadow English language and while the action lulled a lot of the time, the build-up to its finale had me glued to the eReader. Readers who are looking for something different to read may want to check this title out.
(Edit: A bit of a correction, some reviews were saying the language depicted in this book is a shadow version of Middle English, while others mentioned it was derived from Old English. I’m not sure which is correct, but the book blurb mentions Old English so I guess that’s the correct version)