By Paul Kingsnorth
…The book’s saving grace is its ending, due to the fantastic development of our gruff, proud and blustering protagonist, who remains gruff, proud and blustering throughout…
Despite 1066 being a historical date that is very much ingrained in our general knowledge, Paul Kingsnorth’s claim that ‘the English are remarkably ignorant of this period of our history’ certainly rings true- at least for me. When I started reading The Wake, I’ll admit that the names Harold Godwinson and Harald Hardrada were vaguely familiar, (kudos to my year 8 History teacher) but the rest felt like a discovery to be made. I was rather excited, truth be told.
Rest assured that this is no stuffy recounting of dates, events and historical figures carefully extracted from dusty archives. It is, rather, a first person narrative that follows the trials and tribulations of the (very fictional) protagonist, Buccmaster of Holland, who, following the French invasion of 1066, returns home from fishing one day and finds his house burned down and his wife lying dead in the ashes. Buccmaster then flees town, fuming with hatred for the French and the grief of losing his wife and farm.
There are two particularly notable features of this book: the language and the development of the character of Buccmaster himself.
To begin by commenting on the writing style, it would be fair to say that Paul Kingsnorth’s use of language is a real stamp of originality. Buccmaster’s angry stream of consciousness is presented oafishly in order to demonstrate his narrow-minded and simple interpretation of the world. The real impression, however, is made by the language Kingsnorth uses to emphasise this, which borrows heavily from Old English in order to give the reader a feeling for the era of the novel.
Kingsnorth justifies this move fantastically with the statement that:
“To put 21-st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh-century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.”
Once you shake off the hilarious image of a rugged, eleventh century farmer cradling a cappuccino whilst playing Bubblegame, the truth of this statement hits home. Today, for example, when translating from one language to another, one always worries about the loss of linguistic or cultural nuances in the process. The same concern applies to the depiction of a world 1000 years past.
Paul Kingsnorth, striving to address this problem, employs a kind of hybrid language that in some way resembles that of 1066, whilst retaining enough modern day lingo so as not to be unintelligible to today’s reader. What ensues is a continuous process of decoding. Words such as ‘anglisc’, ‘specan’ and ‘freondscipe’ are easily enough interpreted as the words ‘English’, ‘speaking’ and ‘friendship’. Others, such as ‘heafod and ‘yfel’ (‘head’ and ‘evil’) took me a little longer to figure out. For the most part, it’s like a puzzle you need to unlock, which becomes quicker and easier the more you read on. It was pretty fun, if I’m honest, but then, I like that sort of thing.
The problem I have to admit, however, is that, as much as I respect the logic behind this choice (and I really do LOVE the idea), The Wake just didn’t translate overall into a pleasurable reading experience for me. A lot of this, I feel, hinged on the fact that this book is fairly long. The first hundred pages, where we deal simultaneously with the devastation wreaked upon Buccmaster’s village and our own quest to unravel Old English, were interesting enough. The following two hundred were a real drag.
This, I feel, is due to a combination of the writing style and a relatively uneventful plot. There is no doubt that a novel does not need to be action-packed in order to be worth reading. However, when your brain is working twice as hard to actually decipher the language, a couple of hundred pages wandering around the countryside REALLY STARTS TO GRATE ON YOU.
The book’s saving grace is its ending, due to the fantastic development of our gruff, proud and blustering protagonist, who remains gruff, proud and blustering throughout. I’m unwilling to give too much away here, but I found that my expectations were consistently denied, which succeeded in keeping me on tenterhooks. It’s not often that a hero of a novel remains so frustratingly difficult to either like or dislike, but this is certainly the case for Buccmaster, whose true colours are kept ambiguous throughout the novel. It is commendable on the part of Kingsnorth that he has denied the reader the predictable ‘victim rising in the face of adversity’ storyline.
Writing this, it’s clear that there are plenty of great things to say about The Wake. The historical era is intriguing, the language ambitious and the characters exciting. Old English mythology often features in the visions and imaginings of Buccmaster, and in many of these passages, the imagery, tinged with nostalgia, is incredibly beautiful.
I cannot honestly say, however, that I couldn’t put the book down; in reality, once I’d got through half, I had to force myself to pick it back up. This is an ambitious book that made me think about an era that is overlooked in British history. For that reason, I will remember this novel, I just doubt that I’ll ever bring myself to take it down from the shelf for a second try.