In 15th century Somerset, a village is isolated between high ground and a river. Various attempts to find funding and the skills to build a bridge have foundered, and with it the village’s hopes of prosperity. Then in the early hours of Shrove Saturday, the body of a villager is swept away by the river and everyone looks to the priest for answers. The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey is a contemplative, slow burn about John Reve, the priest, his care for the villagers of Oakham, and the persistent questions of his visiting rural dean about the death of Thomas Newman.
The story timeline is chopped up and told backwards, which adds to the mystery. The novel starts with the sighting of the body and the finding of a green shirt in the bulrushes. This is a sign, Reve says, that Newman’s soul has crossed into heaven. Only at the end, do we find out the truth of what really happened. The dean is a threat; we never know his name, and only at the end are we given a physical description of him. He suggests to Reve that as this is the season of confession, a pardon be issued to anyone confessing in the next three days. This, he hopes, will enable him to tell the archdeacon that the death was investigated and the village is full of church-going people who are faithful penitents. He tells Reve: ‘You’re the parish priest – your word weighs a hundred times a normal man’s, two hundred times a woman’s, three hundred times a child’s. Your word is a silver weight in the palm. Your word is worth trading money for. It would cut like a stone through water.’ But what is a parish to do if a priest fails in his office and then compounds that failure with lies; and worse, encourages a parishioner to lie. Everyone in the village is affected by what has happened. Reve has a privileged position, he listens to the confessions of all the villagers; he knows their secrets. But to whom does he tell his own secrets? Unsure of his actions and feeling threatened by the dean’s relentless questions, he asks God to send the western wind as a sign of approval and to blow away the spirits.
There are all sorts of themes going on here. The fine line between religion and superstition. The hypocrisy and lies of religion and its priests. The honesty and doggedness of the rural poor and their willingness to believe in symbols and spirits as well as God. It considers the practice of confession, that allows a person to sin in the knowledge that they will be blessed by the priest afterwards.
This is a careful, restrained novel – as fitting its contemplative clerical narrator – rich in descriptive detail. But at times I wishes it moved a little faster or was a little shorter. Told entirely from Reve’s point of view, it might perhaps have benefited from another voice. I also found the ending rather abrupt.
‘The Western Wind’ by Samantha Harvey [UK: Jonathan Cape]
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