The drama of the Hundred Years War is not easily forgotten. Neither are the royal cast of characters from France’s mad King Charles VI, his wife and Queen Isabeau, his brother Louis, his nephew Charles d’ Orleans to England’s Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke. These are just the beginning of the characters Hella Haasse brings to life in her novel, “In a Dark Wood Wandering: A Novel of the Middle Ages”.
It has been oft-noted in other reviews that Haasse’s almost 100-age prologue deters many readers from continuing onwards with the novel. Indeed, the prologue can feel slightly slow and somewhat tedious as it more so supplies background information (and often in an, “As you know, Bob”-style) than following a novel-like narrative with anything actually ‘happening’. Yet, those readers who enjoy historical fiction novels heavier on the history than the fiction (which I personally do); will find no issues with this prologue as it is vibrant, bright, and alive.
Once past the prologue, Haasse’s novel jumps off the pages even more and the pace picks up noticeably. Haasse’s prose is brilliant combining a beautiful, classical language with a literary tongue. The text is historically accurate and the imagery envelops the reader sweeping him/her away. “In a Dark Wood Wandering” pulls the reader so strongly that one oftentimes is shocked to realize that it is the modern times and not the setting of the novel. It is simply incredible how detailed and glowing Haasse’s writing is; making the novel feel like a first-hand account.
Each character within “In a Dark Wood Wandering” is unique, thorough, and well-developed; jumping out at the reader with individualistic viewpoints that are strong and memorable. Thus, the plot is well-fleshed out and allows the reader to feel that something extraordinary will happen and so it is a ‘must’ to read on.
The historical accuracy of the novel is high with the liberties taken making sense and being seemingly real. Haasse can not be accused of writing fluff. In fact, “In a Dark Wood Wandering” is slightly heavy; not necessarily making it suitable for everyone. Haasse’s passion and research shines through which may overwhelm some readers.
A striking feature of the novel is its blatant psychological pull. Haasse is symbolic, metaphorical, and thrilling in her presentation of life’s forces and emotions which entertain the reader but are also easily relatable. Therefore, “In a Dark Wood Wondering” informs of historical events but truly breaks down their possible causes and effects on a human-conscious level.
“In a Dark Wood Wandering” is truly remarkable in that it has many mini-climaxes versus just one. These arouse all the senses and heighten emotion in every way: one can almost hear the voices, feel the physical pulls, taste the flavors, etc. It is like watching a film and is so moving that a break from reading is required to take it all in (the novel doesn’t feature any chapters and is instead broken into sections).
Complaints toward Haasse and “In a Dark Wood Wandering” only begin to occur around the last 150 or so pages. The novel makes a noticeable weaker turn during Charles d’ Orleans’s exile in England with a slower pace and a somewhat scattered story. This is revived with small bursts of energy such as full quotes from actual poetry written by Orleans and letters dictated to him; and also by the almost psychological explanation of the appearance in history of Joan of Arc. Sadly though, “In a Dark Wood Wandering” weakens again during the last quarter of the novel which is very dragged out and somewhat eventless more in the ‘talking’ versus ‘happening’ stream of things.
The conclusion of “In a Dark Wood Wandering” is anticlimactic and even “cheesy” in an overly-spiritual way. Luckily, this doesn’t hinder the novel and neither does it make it not “worth it”. The novel is strong enough that a poor ending doesn’t take it down a dark path (no pun intended).
Haasse doesn’t include an author’s note explaining any historical liberties or any resources used which isn’t surprising as older HF novels did not tend do so. Despite this, “In a Dark Wood Wandering” encourages further reading and exploration of the characters presented: especially of Charles d’ Orleans whose personality and life sticks with the reader and begs to be further journeyed on.
Even in lieu of minor flaws; “In a Dark Wood Wandering” is an exquisite work of HF with a lively plot, depth, historical merit, and beautiful prose. It is simply wonderful and a terrific read. Haasse’s novel is recommended for all readers interested in this historic time frame and especially those who prefer a strong focus on history versus fictional fluff.