Something a bit different today: for the first time in my life, I feel compelled to write a book review.
Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake tells the tale of the Norman invasion of England in 1066 through the eyes of a Lincolnshire farmer, Buccmaster of Holland. After the initial wave of devastation, Buccmaster has to find a new way to live in a country increasingly at odds with his traditions and his expectations. But he finds it impossible to let go of the old ways, ultimately leading him into deep conflict with everyone he meets. It is a post-apocalyptic novel set nearly a thousand years in the past.
Over the last week or so, I’ve worked my way through The Wake. This immediately sounds like a less-than-ringing endorsement. Worked my way through? But there’s really no other way to put it. This is a novel that demands the reader’s whole attention, because it’s written in a language that doesn’t exist and never has.
Kingsnorth has taken elements of the Old English spoken a thousand years ago and melded them with elements and syntax from modern English, to create what he calls a ‘shadow tongue’, giving a flavour of how his characters might have spoken in 1066 without requiring the reader to hold a degree in Old English. Naturally, some effort is still required, as seen in an early paragraph*:
so i will go to the ham i saes to my wifman and i will asc what the gerefa macs of this fugol. she was weafan on her great loom in my great hus as i left this hus was sum thing to see. raised of ac timber it was the roof laid with secg from the fenn all carfan on the door frames wyrms and the runes of the eald times. treen we had and some seolfor things a great crocc greater than many in the ham many men was lustan after my hus
But once you have a few pages under your belt and consulted the partial glossary a few times for those words without modern cognates, it becomes almost second nature. Through this gained fluency comes better understanding of the first-person narrator, Buccmaster of Holland. Through better understanding comes insight into Buccmaster’s mind. And what a mind.
Buccmaster is one of the most bitter, small-minded, manipulative, abusive horrors I’ve come across in fiction – the epitome of the anti-hero – and I loved reading his voice. He brought to mind Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho; indeed, anyone meeting Buccmaster now would consider him a sociopath. He sees everyone as below him (his references to his status as a “socman” and his ownership of “three oxgangs of good land” continue long after such things have been destroyed) and uses his initial social status to essentially bully others into following him as an insurgent leader. As the story progresses and it becomes clear that he is no sort of leader, he shows his mastery of manipulation as he twists words and takes advantage of his luck to convince his followers that everyone else is “dumb esols”. Everything Buccmaster does seems to be driven by anger and frustration. In modern American parlance, he has ‘gone postal’. In modern British parlance… he’s pretty much a Britain First candidate. He’s just awful.
Every so often… well, in fact, a lot of the time… Buccmaster achieves his goals by simply being stubborn and swearing aggressively until others back down or are won round. His foul-mouthed rants against the “fuccan frenc hunds” are wonderful to read, filled with the contempt that drives his every action, pulling the reader deeper into Buccmaster’s gradual descent into madness. Filled with blind rage at the loss of his grandfather’s beloved Norse “eald gods” in England due to the coming of “the crist”, he starts to believe himself to be the last hope of “anglisc men”, carrying a sword forged by the mythical Weland the Smith. As a second narrative voice starts to regularly interweave with that of Buccmaster, it is clear that his grip on reality is becoming weaker, and the reader is left wondering where he can turn next.
Ultimately, I hugely enjoyed my ride along in Buccmaster’s mind, although the thing that gives the voice its strength and authenticity – the ‘shadow tongue’ – also proves to be its greatest limiting factor. By limiting the language so that no words of French or Latin derivation are used, Kingsnorth has removed huge swathes of descriptive vocabulary that we are so used to as modern readers. Naturally, a sokeman in 1066 would not have had a huge vocabulary, so it is certainly in keeping with the linguistic conceit, but it does mean that things can be a little repetitive through the course of the book. There are only so many times that you can be told a mere is deop and deorc, lined with secg and lesch, but I forgave the repetition as it gave extra weight to Buccmaster’s slow decline – as if he is using the same phrases again and again to make his thoughts more true and more real, to take things back to the way they always were.
The Wake isn’t a book I can blithely recommend, much as I might like to. It really depends on a person’s relationship with reading as an activity, and the reviews on Amazon bear this out. The rating distribution is an almost-perfect inverted bell curve, with as many people loving it as hating it (“Don’t understand it, Would like my money back” is a particular favourite of mine). If reading is mindless entertainment for you, The Wake is one to avoid. For those who like a bit of immersive challenge and a ride along with one of the most unpleasant characters you may ever meet, it triewely is a fuccan good boc.
* Rough translation into modern English (any translation errors my own):
“So I will go to the village,” I said to my woman, “and I will ask what the reeve makes of this bird.” She was weaving on her great loom in my great house as I left. This house was something to see. Raised of oak timber it was, the roof laid with sedge from the fen, all carved on the door frames [were] dragons and the runes of the old times. We had woodenware and some silver things; a great cauldron, greater than many in the village. Many men lusted after my house.