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  1. The Wake bills itself as being a novel unlike any other you will read. This, I suspect, is true. Set in 1066 at the time of the Norman Conquest, we meet Buccmaster of Holland. Buccmaster narrates his story is a strange hybrid of Modern and Saxon English. The spelling is heavily stylized and Paul Kingsnorth has gone to some lengths to make it fit with a consistent set of rules – albeit rules based on his own logic. The language is mostly supposed to be words of Saxon or Germanic origin although Kingsnorth tells readers that he has made some compromises. The text can be hard to read at first but after a few pages, the reader gets accustomed to the spelling, absence of punctuation or capital letters, and weird sentence structure. It kind of builds into a rhythm that is hypnotic. But be in no doubt – and Kingsnorth would not have it any other way – the resulting style was chosen more for look and feel than for adherence to authenticity. What is authentic, however, is the feeling of loss, of chaos and destruction following the Norman invasion. The people become real, living breathing beings rather than crudely embroidered stickmen in the famous tapestry. Unlike the history books that tell of a tired and depleted army marching south after defeating Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, we find tales told by Saxon soldiers of how they could and should have beaten William. We see tales of strategic errors and bad luck. We have a sense of a pre-conquest society that was mature and political. Whilst The Wake, just like English history books, begins in 1066, we see a significant pre-history. We have men who fondly remember the reign of Canute; who are in touch still with the earth-gods that predated Christianity; who wait for dead kings to awaken beneath the high barrows in which they were buried with their battle ships. These are people who appear to have a freedom that was to vanish in subsequent centuries. We get to know Buccmaster pretty well. He is a boastful man who has three oxgangs; he is a socman who never gave geld to a theyn. His high station exempts him from manual work, permitting him instead to stand offering advice to others on how they should do their work. Buccmaster has a penchant for idiom that is somewhat, er…, Anglo Saxon. He is a colourful man for whom the phrase “all mouth and no trousers” could have been invented. The story is twofold. There is the story of resistance to the Normans. History tells us how that will end. There is also the story of Buccmaster himself – who he is and how he came to be where he stood in 1066. Both are compelling but slow moving. The joy, though, is in the recreation of an ancient time; an ancient habitat and ancient values. It’s a bit like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart – the text shows the pointlessness in trying to view other times and other cultures through a lens of modern values. Buccmaster’s attitudes to women, to peasants, to priests and to those who disagree with him are initially shocking, then comical and ultimately tragic. The language, which is always going to be the main talking point, is a mixed blessing. It is a mighty feat and there is something comical about Buccmaster’s brazenness being filtered through this pseudo-Saxon-speak. However, after a hundred or so pages, one feels one has rather got the point and the endless repetition, backtracking and lack of plot direction gets wearing. Moreover, the style makes it difficult for any character other than Buccmaster to have any depth. The only real emotion seems to be in Buccmaster’s own head, leaving others as no more than their deeds. One is reminded for much of the novel of Lady Gregory’s Kiltartanese tellings of the ancient Ulster legends, with academic rigour replacing characterisation. But as well as an un-Gregory-like use of humour, Paul Kingsnorth does have a final trick up his sleeve. The ending is not quite what the reader had been led to expect, and that does repay the effort of sticking with the text. The Wake has been longlisted for The Booker Prize. It may not win, but it is one of the most interesting books to have been listed in recent years. ****0
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