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Friday, 14 March 2014

The Wake

At Christmas Tilly bought me a book that I've been babbling about for a good year or so. It's taken three years to come to fruition and I am now the proud owner of the Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. An odd book that bills itself as a post apocalyptic novel set one thousand years ago and, in that, I can't argue. It arrived in our house about three weeks ago and so it is only the second book I've read in the past four years.

I love the way that he has chosen to write this in the ghost language set halfway between Old English and modern English and, I think I've said before, I should love to emulate that a little more. And Kingsnorth clearly knows his stuff, he has studied linguistics well.

Would you like to know more?

I fell in love with the Wake when I read the extract and watched the video. So, when I got my grubby mitts on a copy, it was unlikely that I would find it a drag. And I didn't. Some people may find the language and the spelling jarring. At first I did have to read it out loud, sotto voce, in order to get through but, as it continued, I found that I was able to get into the time and the place more easily until I didn't need to read it out loud any more. From the opening I found that I did not really like our main narrator, there were plenty of hints that he was an unreliable one, but that did not really get in the way too much - and he was certainly a character. Now and again there were sections where it seemed as though earlier drafts collided with revisions but, on the whole, I think I was being picky.

The use of language and the choice of phrasing certainly evoked the right time and an atmosphere of the fens and the confusion of 1066. It was very clear that Kingsnorth knew his stuff on the period and you can tell that he'd hit every known source about what he was talking about, in a good way. I thoroughly enjoyed Pillars of the Earth but it was obvious that research had been done because any chance that Follett had to ram home the boring bits that he found interesting was taken. So we were treated to some pretty bizarre sections where basic medieval history was 'revealed' as if it were new (misogyny or the organisation of an Abbey for example) or comically pitched (the scene where the monks buy wool from a woman or the way we witnessed the beginning of middle men). By contrast, the research in The Wake was shown in ways that were genuinely surprising (Buccmaster believes in the eald godes for example). Also, the plot is a good one (though the ending was sadly trope-filled) and so I didn't mind the nods to other books or the sections of research, they weren't dumped on me from a great height.

Basically, if you want to visit another world you could do worse than visit angland between 1066 and 1068, see the fenns and walk the hams with buccmaster of holland, a socman with eight oxgangs.

It helped, or vice versa, that I read about half of the book whilst visiting Auschwitz I and II on, of all things, a day trip. Talk of human nature and darkness and deepness and meres seemed to chime with the darkness there shown from the depths of human souls. Some religious confusion and conflict rendered with thoughts on nationalism based on 1066 style philosophy. So it raised questions of what our identity is. Would buccmaster of holland be buccmaster of holland if he were not in the fenns or around his ham? When he visits his ham after being forced from it he becomes centred. At one point another character, annis, suggests that buccmaster may have travelled when he disappeared and grimcell (a cottar) laughs out loud at thought. Buccmaster himself seems ill at ease with the idea that could be himself outside of the fenns and his ham.

So it got me thinking when driving through Poland about the nature of who we are and our locales. Poland was not like, is not like, the UK. Outside Krakow was flat and drained and old marsh land. There were stands of beech and birch all around the low earth. The ground was dusty and brown and the sunlight had a strange quality to it. In the book it is clear that buccmaster and grimcell are of the fenns, they understand the fugols and the sounds of the wihts. So it was that I reflected on what brings identity to people as a result of the book. Once I reached the camps I had read a section in which buccmaster talks of raising the dead. Do the living have a right to raise the dead if the dead do not wish it? Who are we to decide what our forefathers or the people that died before want to be remembered and seen as? What has been dehumanised: can one rehumanise? What does one do with the salt if it loses its saltiness? Thus spake buccmaster in the Wake and it resonated in Oswiecym and the site of the Great Synagogue and when I was walking through the camps.

On the one hand it was a shame that life took the Wake to Auschwitz but, on the other, I suspect that reading it there was better than anything else I could have been reading. I warmly recommend the Wake to anyone who wants to visit a world that may not have existed exactly as shown but must have come pretty close. Very enjoyable. As think-y as you'd like or as lite as you want. The story isn't a great one, the ending disappointed me a little, but the fact is that it doesn't affect the book as a whole. It's a tale you think you know but you don't. Like the camps. You think you know... but I didn't.

It's a brilliant book. You should buy it.

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