The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth

>> Sunday, October 05, 2014

TITLE: The Wake
AUTHOR: Paul Kingsnorth

PAGES: 384

SETTING: 11th century England
TYPE: Fiction

Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next...Set in the three years after the Norman invasion, The Wake tells the story of a fractured band of guerilla fighters who take up arms against the invaders. Carefully hung on the known historical facts about the almost forgotten war of resistance that spread across England in the decade after 1066, it is a story of the brutal shattering of lives, a tale of lost gods and haunted visions, narrated by a man of the Lincolnshire fens bearing witness to the end of his world.

The Wake tells the story of Buccmaster of Holland, a man living in a Lincolnshire village at the time of the Norman invasion. The coming of the Normans is catastrophic for Buccmaster, as for so many others. With his family and his house gone, he decides to lead a group of men who've also lost everything and fight the invaders.

Out of all the books on the Man Booker longlist, The Wake is probably the most unlikely one. Not only was it crowd-funded, it's written in what the author describes as a "shadow tongue", a language inspired in Old English, but updated in such a way as to actually make it understandable to modern readers. Basically, there are no words of Latin origin (since the English tongue hadn't yet began to mix with the French) and no letters that weren't used at the time (no k or v or a couple of others I now can't remember), and the spelling, punctuation and sentence structure are very much not modern. The Author's Note gives us a couple of pronunciation rules (e.g. "sc" is pronounced "sh", so "biscop" should be read as "bishop") and there is a short glossary for words that the reader would not be able to guess or deduce (e.g. "fugol" means "bird"), but that's all we get before we are on our way. By the way, these items are both at the end of the Kindle version, which seems counterproductive; you'd definitely want to read them first (I did).

Anyway, I was intrigued when I first read about the book, but I was also quite a bit wary. Was this really necessary, or was Kingsnorth just being willfully difficult and pretentious? Did I really want to struggle through the sort of thing in the photograph below? (click to enlarge). I thought I'd wait and see, and only read it if it got on the shortlist.

Fortunately, I then listened to one of my regular bookish podcasts, Adventures With Words. What they do every year is read the kindle samples of all the books on the longlist and talk about their first impressions, and whether they would want to continue reading based on that. One of the podcasters was really enthusiastic about The Wake. She said that she'd quickly got into the rhythm of the writing and that she'd enjoyed what she'd read of the story. What she said tempted me, and I decided to pick it up next.

Well, I agree completely. This is one extraordinary book, and one of the reasons is, yes, the language. It's not some sort of gimmick; it's absolutely necessary to put you inside Buccmaster's mind and looking out of his eyes and to create the world he inhabits. He's not a modern character plonked down in the 11th century, and the language makes this obvious. I honestly don't think Kingsnorth could have achieved anything even close to the same effect without it. It's little things like, for instance, the way the word "women" is "wifmen", highlighting how in Buccmaster's worldview, a woman is a wife, and that's that.

Is it worth the effort on the part of the reader? To me, definitely. And really, although reading The Wake does require more concentration than reading other books, it's not as hard as the pic above would suggest. I started out sounding things out in my head, virtually reading the text out loud. 'Deofyl'? Ahh, devil. And 'triewe' must be 'true'. And what was 'cenep' again? *Checks the glossary* Ah, 'moustache'. That would have been exhausting, if I'd had to keep it up for an entire book, but I really didn't. After a surprisingly short while I had learnt the language, and other than sporadic checks of the glossary when a new term came up, I was just reading, almost as fast as usual. It's an effort, but not a superhuman one, by any means.

I've concentrated on the language and the setting so far, but the book is much more than a recreation of a particular time. There's a story, but mainly, this is a character study. Buccmaster feels completely real, and he's one fascinating character. He's very alien in some ways, but completely believable and understandable and recognisably human. He's basically a self-important braggart who thinks he's better than anyone else. Partly it's that before the Normans came he was "a socman of three oxgangs" (i.e. a free tenant farmer, owning three of that measure of land), as he constantly reminds us and everyone around him, and therefore superior to his companions, who didn't have that independence. Partly it's that he is devoted to the old ways and the old religions, and therefore has nothing but contempt for the idiots who pay any heed to the Christian priests. Here's Buccmaster talking about his grandfather:

he was eald he was ealder than any man in the fenns and there was those saed this was due to his wicce craft for he was not with the crist and that he wolde go on his death to hel. this is the scit what folcs specs if they is left to them selfs and it is why they sceolde be loccd ofer by greater men.
"greater men", of course, being Buccmaster himself.

And that short sentence I think gives you some indication of why, even though he's a terrible human being, Buccmaster is such a wonderful character and I was willing to make the effort to read his story. He's interesting and entertainingly irreverent. He effs and blinds all over the place... "fuccan" this, "fuccan" that, and his utter disdain for everyone else is jaw-dropping, and yet believable. He's a real pill and a right bastard, and he really comes alive during the book.

And I think, because he's the kind of person he is, the sheer hugeness and horror of what has happened to the country really emerges. He's no great leader of men, no paragon, and you get the feeling there must have been many, many like him around the country: people who have had the fabric of their lives ripped apart. People who had a measure of freedom have become unfree, completely beholden to people who just suddenly showed up and care nothing for anything other than what they can extract from them. I really felt the outrage.

And for all that this is a story about people in quite desperate circumstances and where really bad things happen, and are not taken lightly, it's fuccan hilarious. It's all in the details, like Buccmaster and his companions' outrage when they see that the French invaders are bald as eggs (i.e. they don't have huge bushy beards, like them).

I loved it. This is why I keep making the effort to try stuff on the Man Booker lists. There's no way I would even have heard of this book otherwise.



Meljean,  8 October 2014 at 04:52  

Ugh. Not available in the US yet. Now debating whether to have this shipped from the UK. It sounds incredible.

Rosario 9 October 2014 at 07:49  

Oh, no! Is it not available as an ebook? I can see it as available on amazon if I sign in with my mum's account, which is registered on the US amazon site, but it might be different for actual US accounts.

meljean brook 10 October 2014 at 05:09  

No Kindle version for me. Ha, geo-restrictions working the other way for once. :-D

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