The Western Wind - Samantha Harvey
The Western Wind - Samantha Harvey ****
A large proportion of The Western Wind takes place within the dark confines of a makeshift priest's confessional in the small village of Oakham in Somerset in 1491. It's surprising the kind of minor infractions of thought and behaviour that the poor working people of the village consider grave enough to have to confess to the local priest, John Reve, but what is rather more worrying is how many of them, in the lead-up to Lent, are prepared to confess to the killing of Thomas Newman, one of the more prominent and wealthy men in the district.
Thomas Newman is or was a man of the world, educated, enlightened, well-travelled, steeped in other cultures and ideas, observant of Christian religion but aware of other ideas and belief systems, so it's a shock to the whole community when it is reported that he has been seen washed down the river that borders Oakham. The implications are enormous for the village, as Newman had long been an instrumental force in efforts to have a bridge built to reconnect them with the rest of the world. The need to find out what happened is even more pressing, as the dean for the region wants Reve to report anything important he hears in confession, so that the soul of anyone involved can be saved, even as they face burning at the stake. Or perhaps there are other reasons relating to the substantial land owned by Newman that some local monks are now interested in acquiring.
Surprisingly, even though it seems quite obvious that Newman leaped to his own death - although his body has not yet been recovered - there are quite a few villagers willing to confess to having a hand in his death. As unlikely as their confession sounds, Reve has to listen and caution, finding himself and his own position under threat by the event, but it is also apparent from his actions that the priest knows more about what happened to Newman than he is prepared to tell the dean. But the dean needs answers and knowledge of the truth - that it was a likely act of self-murder by an unshriven man - isn't going to make things any easier for John Reve.
In terms of establishing character and a wealth of detail that goes into understanding the lives and thought processes of the medieval mindset, Samantha Harvey's writing is terrific; it's observant of the daily drudgery of the existence of Reve and his parishioners, but it also conjures a great sense of mood, period and location. The villagers are recalcitrant but suggestible, superstitious but concerned about their souls, believing them threatened by ghosts and devils alike. Reve too has a troubled conscience, not just in his knowledge about Newman, but with other little human failings like greed, lust, as well as the responsibility for his parishioners that he is beginning to feel inadequate to lead.
The Western Wind is clearly more than a medieval murder-mystery however, and the observations made about the character of the people, their relationship to authority, class and social position, to landowners, businessmen, religious authorities and nobility is one that is still recognisable today. The question of whether to build a bridge that connects Oakham to the trading opportunities with the rest of the world or whether to remain in isolation, caught up in their own petty little concerns, clearly has contemporary resonance however. Even the name of the drowned man "Newman" is suggestive of suspicious foreign-influenced ideas that are regarded with mistrust and fear by the villagers.
As a murder-mystery however - even though that is clearly not the intended purpose of the work - or even a search for the truth amidst a community with things to hide and good reason to hide them, The Western Wind does lead you down a false path. Reve, we discover knows pretty much exactly what happened to Tom Newman, and the only reason the reader doesn't know this earlier is through a bit of a literary deceit with regard to timelines and holding back what the novel chooses to reveal. Or perhaps it's a case that Reve refuses to acknowledge the truth to himself, and it takes the full circle of the novel for you to appreciate the nature of fear, insularity and lack of rational thought that keeps Oakham and its inhabitants wrapped up within themselves.
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey is published by Jonathan Cape on 1st March 2018
Amazon UK - The Western Wind