Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Fuccan fugols...
It’s three o’clock on a weekday which can mean only one, two, three things – it’s already many hours since I stopped caring about work, it’s time for a dandelion and burdock tea, and I can’t keep my mind on any one thing for more than five minutes. Plus, ooh is that a butterfly?

Therefore, what better way to fill up the time I should be spending deep in thought on the administration of pedagogical matters than to write a review of a book I’ve been reading? None, I tell you!

So it seems I’m back to pimping out the lead titles of the Unbound crowd-funding chappies once more. I have no qualms about this because, being short of memory and attention span, it’s really rather brilliant to become excited about a new book, only to forget about it for a few months, then have that excitement reignited by the email telling me it’s funded and off to the printers. The subsequent return to the fog of memory for that period between printing and publication makes the inevitable delivery as glorious as the sun suddenly burning off a summer morning mist. All of which contributes to the experience above and beyond the actual high quality physical product and content.

Pause for clementine / tangerine (never quite sure which is which). You see, it’s important to get regular doses of vitamin C as the body can’t store it, see? Now, what was I…?

Oh yes, The Wake. No apostrophe-less possessives or confused plurals, but still a work of some distinct complexity. Kingsnorth, the bearer of many descriptive epithets including poet and director of the Dark Mountain Project, has produced a novel on which many other notable people, including Adam Thorpe, Philip Pullman and Lucy Mangan, have commented widely; about the language, grammar, syntax and how it is to read, because of its use of a ‘shadow tongue’*, and of the verisimilitude of the portrayal of 11th century England; all very uplifting and head-swelling stuff for Mr Kingsnorth, no doubt. It’s also garnered three – yes three – reader reviews on the Unbound site, something I’ve not witnessed previously. It all goes to prove that this may be the best book (of original material, to avoid a disservice to the collative and editorial efforts of Shaun “Letters of Note” Usher**) to have been published by this house.

From my perspective, having studied Old and Middle English to an extent at my alma mater, the language was intriguing;  it wasn’t too much of a stretch, was quickly processed by the brain and read almost as fast as normal, the occasional oddity of vocabulary notwithstanding. What was more exciting was that I’d completely misunderstood the premise of the novel, having paid only cursory attention to the plot synopsis, caught up as I was in the general mood of novelty when the book was first mooted. I had believed we would be treated to the life of Hereward, from his overseas war-mongering, to his return to England and the loss of his lands and titles to the Normans, gently fictionalised to preserve the modesty of grasping Lincolnshire land-owners keen for a genealogic link to the last great English resistance fighter. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, Buccmaster is a complete arsehole, pompous and self-important, and entirely deluded about his connection to the land and the old gods of ‘England’ (despite having it gently pointed out that they were really imported with the Danish ingengas many years before). The imagined conversations with the mythical Wayland the Smith (written as Weland by Kingsnorth) start rather supernaturally but quickly deteriorate into internal arguments over Buccmaster’s own sense of self-worth, betraying a burgeoning madness which culminates in a near atrocity.

There’s so much going on that the language is only a novelty, despite it being such an important part of the context of the novel. The protagonist is such a complex creation, an untrustworthy narrator whose own declarations of “triewth” are given the lie by later contradictions and embellishments, that he is instantly dislikeable in the most engaging way. Even when I thought he would turn out to be the legendary Hereward I thought that Kingsnorth was deliberately making him a repulsive character to challenge an accepted viewpoint, √° la his Dark Mountain Project. 

There is much to admire: poetry in the simple vocabulary, oft repeated; a remarkable evocation of time and place; a brilliant character full of dark and complicated emotions. I was moved to read it and am delighted it exists, and to not mention the binding, which is reminiscent of medieval folio manuscripts, the pages tied between two stiff cardboard covers bearing delightful embossing, would be a crime against the art of book binding. Once again, a truly remarkable product has been made possible by a few lovely people.


*A gently cleaned up version of Old / Middle English as used by such luminaries as Aelfric of Eynsham and… those other fellows.

**Goddammnit. I logged in to double check I had Shaun Usher’s name right and accidentally let myself pledge support for another book… Those devious swine.