By Paul Kingsnorth
Graywolf Press, 2015
384 pages, $16.00
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake is an achievement in history, in language, and in punishing the readers in the best way possible. For readers who re-read Beowulf, who hum in Old English on their way to work, who hate the use of modern techniques of remembering history, this is the book you’ve been waiting for. For readers seeking a challenge, for readers who want to recall the history not only of England but of oral storytelling, this is the book that will force you read slowly and more diligently than most other novels. For readers seeking something easy, go elsewhere. The tale of Buccmaster is one of heroic proportions, of the rise and the fall, and of the lack of humanity. It is mythic, it is historic, and it’s well worth the effort.
Kingsnorth has a few lofty goals in mind on the outset of this novel. He scoffs at, and rightfully so, the idea of modernizing the stories of history. He strives for a new sense of authenticity. That alone should be a marvel for the reader to consider, to create this “shadow tongue” as he calls it to help the reader see the bridge of what was then and what is today. This is a novel meant to be read aloud, as the tradition used to be. This isn’t a requirement, but the story allows for it to work in a rather subtly poetic way. It takes some time to adjust to this new language, especially if you have no history of reading any Old English previous to this. You read passages a few times, you flip back to the incredibly helpful glossary on definitions and the notes about the language. In the following excerpt, you can see the mix of old and new, and how accessible it is to understand:
“When we was in a brunnesweald neebs all blaec hydan in the grene holt lic the afeart bucc oft I was thincan of my grandfather. A great man he was strong in all he wolde weep to see what angland has becum. Efen he strong man that he was wolde weep lic a cilde to see us hidan there runnan from ingengas in our own land that is no longer our own land”
Is it merely an exercise in language or something more? Should I fear getting to know this language and not really emphasis on Buccmaster or the story itself? Worthy questions yes, but after an adjustment period, you begin to see patterns, you begin to see the character of Buccmaster and the rebels he surrounds himself with and the world he lives in. You begin to see the true beauty of what The Wake really is.
The story is about the end of the world. More specifically, of the apocalypse coming to the world of England in 1066. It’s about the change that happens during this grand transformation. Like most novels of similar plots, it isn’t about the end of mankind entirely, but rather, mankind as we see it. This particular piece of history, the Norman Invasion, has had bigger impacts than many readers and historians would like to admit. Kingsnorth excels here. History novels need to show the immediacy and impact of the world they create, even if they know the outcome. Why should we care about Buccmaster and his fellow farmers? It’s not as if England sunk into the Atlantic? It’s a thriving country, one of the most recognized in the world. But, like the best historic novels, The Wake forces you to care, there is a sense of urgency in the writing, in each wave as the climax comes closer and closer. And at the same time, Kingsnorth paints an outstanding image of Old England, of a land now forgotten. The undertones of what we are missing now (replaced by cities and buildings) is there. But this world is as real as Middle-Earth was. This should not be swept under the more visual goals Kingsnorth sets out to accomplish, with the language and the writing style. The story is about the land that Buccmaster travels on and defends. It’s a character all its own. In many ways, the language enhances the beautiful simplicity of the story.
The Wake is to be celebrated not as a great challenge, not something to brag about completing. It forces the reader to think critically with each sentence. There are no clichés, no sense of commonness about this novel. Buccmaster is a character like few others, with a mythic air to him similar to Macbeth or even King Arthur (with a legendary sword and all). This power becomes known to him and in turn, to the reader: “i is buccmaster of Holland and the eald gods has ridden for me.” This is a novel meant to be spoken, to be heard. Buccmaster is a tale not to be forgotten anytime soon, and will be remembered for all the right reasons.