Gumble's Yard's Reviews > The Western Wind

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

liked it
bookshelves: 2018

A village of scrags and outcasts, Oakham, Beastville, Pigtown, Nobridge. The village that came to no good; the only village for miles around that doesn’t trade wool, doesn’t make cloth, doesn’t have the skill to build a bridge. Here’s the village we pass by, with its singing milkmaids, we call it Cheesechurn, Milkpasture, Cowudder. It’s Lord is as pudgy and spineless as the cheese he makes. Its people are vagrants that were ousted form their own villages and are in most respects desperate. Its richest man was whisked off down the river and drowned. And here is its priest: young John Reve, roosting in the dark. For all that he’s overseen by Christ, he’s led his people to no further illumination

This novel is set in 1491 in Oakham, a small Somerset village isolated by its position on a river, a river that the village has twice tried and failed to bridge, a village whose kindly but ineffectual Lord of the Manor Townsend is convinced can make money in poorly produced cheese as opposed to the wool trade which enriches the surrounding villages with their better transport links, and a village which ends up attracting a collection of misfits.

The exception to this is the much travelled and industrious Thomas Newman – who has lost his wife and child and who gradually starts to but up Townshend’s land, but like Townshend is a kindly landlord seemingly prioritising the welfare of the village over his own riches. The book opens on Shrove Tuesday. four days after a body is seen to have fallen in the river, and a search of the village quickly reveals him to be missing – on this fourth day a body is seen briefly caught on a fallen tree downriver and Townshend’s shirt discovered in some nearby bulrushes, these are bought to the village priest Reve by Carter (who was effectively adopted by Newman). Reve is under pressure from the rural Dean to either identify a murderer or find some proof that Newman has passed through purgatory – and has offered a pardon for all of Lent to anyone who comes to confession (in an effort to see if the confessions reveal what happened to Newman) – the Dean increasingly keen to settle on a murderer (with Carter, Townshend and also Sarah, a seriously ill woman, best friend of Reve’s recently married sister, who in her illness has confessed to the murder all identified by him as potential people he can accuse).

Find something, the dean said, and by that he meant: find me the murderer. I’d assured him I would. What I’d neglected to tell him was this: the murderer isn’t who you think. Who is it that invariably takes life? Death, of course. Death itself is the murderer, and birth its accomplice. Men die because they’re born to die. By drowning, by disease, by mishap, by all God’s assassins. What was either of us going to do to change that?

The book works slowly backwards over each of the previous four days finishing with the day of Newman’s fall – told in the first person by Reve, and much of it dominated by:

His conversations with those coming to confess – although often for trivial sins or even to boast of their misdemeanors – Reve having been possibly the first person in England to adopt the idea of a confessional box (the idea taken from Italy) rather than confession being both face to face and largely in public;

His discussions with the Dean – who is concerned that the murder will give a nearby monastery the excuse it needs to seize the village lands and to whom Reve reports on the confessions he has heard;

A number of his sermons to the villagers whose superstition seems stronger than their orthodox belief and who have recently alternated between visiting itinerant monks to confess unofficially and being seduced by a part new age/part protestant reformation doctrine spread by Newman.

As the book moves backwards the relationships between Sarah and Reve, Newman’s own thoughts, and the indirect part both Carter and Reve played in Newman’s death emerge and cast greater light on the actions of these players at the start of the book (on the eve of Lent) and a quote at the literal end of the book which casts a new light over the (earlier in pages, later in time) chronolgical end of the book.
I’d sooner climb up and sacrifice myself before I saw a single of my parish die. What a thing to say, if it was said with meaning. I didn’t know if I meant it. It didn’t matter, it would never come to be

One theme that emerges through the book is the Western Wind – for Reve a wind inextricably bound up with his birth and faith. As he was being born, the village where he lived was in danger of being engulfed by fire and reluctantly he and his mother were abandoned by the villagers only to be saved by a last minute change of direction of the wind to the West, something this mother linked to Exodus 10: 12-20

My mother told me that the priest told her that no such miracle had been performed with the wind since the Lord sent in a westerly to banish the plague of locusts. When the priest explained that it was Moses who’d been the instrument of God in the miracle, first spreading his hand to bring the east wind, then spreading it again to bring the west, my mother made association between the newborn Moses who’d been left in a basket of rushes .. and her newborn, and saw me as Moses refashioned, and surmised I might be an instrument of God. I grew up supposing that there was only way of testing the truth of her wildly leaping faith, which was to see if I could, after all, summon that wind again at will. The wind came plenty but never at will. The ambition died with failure and adolescence .. and it was only when my Mother died (in a fire) the grief led me .. to what she’d wanted me to be and I began my training for the clergy and made it the ultimate standard of my closeness to God that he would, one day, and perhaps only once, bring a wind from the west because I asked.

Reve decides to implore the village to pray for a Western Wind – as a sign of God’s grace and favour on the village and to blow Newman through purgatory.

There is much to like in this book – the writing is slow and deliberate but weighted with detail and colour and meaning. The character of Reeve is a subtle but interesting one, and some of the period detail is initially fascinating such as the traditions of weighing the priest or the village game of camp-ball, and the various, cyclical and seasonal village traditions

But the seasons come back, don’t they …. they come back every year. We’re flooded, we’re parched, we’re thirsty, we’ve enough, we’ve nothing, it’s winter, then spring, it’s Lent and Holy Week, it’s the summer bonfires, Rogation, Embertide, Corpus Christi. The sun is high, the sun is low, the wheat is green, then gold, then gone. And no year is more tired than the last – have you noticed that? No year is old or tired ….. The River of time, isn’t that what they call it … But it’s no river at all. Time comes back on itself always new”

At first, this quote resonated with me as reminding me of Reservoir 13 – but later struck me as oddly anachronistic. The strength of Reservoir 13 was how it re-instated and re-validated the importance of the rhythmic nature of village life and nature, in a modern world (and modern literature) which regards time as an arrow and progress as both inevitable and desirable – but it struck me here that the view Reve expresses (and which is written such as it is an unusual view) was in fact likely the way that most people thought of time.

And that in turn lead me to consider and ultimately negatively evaluate some other striking aspects of the book – I was surprised at a female church warden at this time, I was intrigued by the idea of the confessional box and surprised to read of some of the theological ideas that Newman had adopted (also from Italy). Good historical novels often cause me to do follow up reading to explore some of the ideas further – the best even leading to me buying a number of non-fiction books.

Here however some cursory Googling seemed to show a female church warden unlikely, the confessional box not actually invented in Italy a century later, Newman seemingly falling between Jan Hus/John Wycliffe and the later Martin Luther and the choice of Italy as to where he picked up some of his ideas odd. Normally in such a book I would then perhaps expect to read an afterword by the author justifying her choice of apparent anachronisms but that too was missing here. Some of this could be said not to matter – but the concept of confession is completely central to the whole novel and further to the above point about the confessional box seemingly invented before its time, the very concept of the Dean encouraging the pious Reve to us the confession to flush out information appears to me to entirely contradict the fundamental principle of the Seal of the Confession.

So a book with much to like, and one I enjoyed reading, but with unsatisfactory elements which reduce my overall rating.
24 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Western Wind.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

April 18, 2018 – Shelved
April 18, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
May 14, 2018 – Started Reading
May 15, 2018 – Shelved as: 2018
May 16, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Fran (new)

Fran Excellent review, Gumble's Yard!

Gumble's Yard Thanks Fran

back to top