The Wake: A Novel

  • By Paul Kingsnorth
  • Graywolf Press
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Katy Bowman
  • September 21, 2015

Powerless, damaged, and damned, a Dutch everyman embarks on a psychological journey in 1066.

Buccmaster of Holland fancies himself a Cassandra character — doomed to have his prophecies discounted, disbelieved, ignored. Ever since a great black bird with eyes of fire and a man’s fingers at the ends of its wings flew over his land, the protagonist of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake has known something would come. And then a “hairy star,” a comet, can be seen in the sky. Something is coming, indeed.

The Wake tells the tale of a man hanging desperately to the old ways of England as the Normans invade his country. A man who believes the old gods chose him to accomplish great things. A man who believes his destiny is to stand up to the invaders — both the Normans and the Christians — and return his country to a state of grace.

The story begins just before King Harald III of Norway invades the north of England and Duke William II of Normandy the south in 1066. King Harold of England beats back his northern invader, Harald the Landwaster, as he is called in the novel. But Duke William, whose mission is backed by the Pope in Rome, kills the English king, becoming known as William the Conqueror. William is crowned as the new king of England, his victory changing the country forever.

Kingsnorth wrote the book in a dialect he created to approximate Old English, the language Buccmaster would have spoken. It is written “in what might be called a shadow tongue — a pseudo-language intended to convey the feeling of the old language,” according to the author. But don’t let this intimidate you — the language is easily understood. Within five pages I read it as fluently as regular modern-day English. Kingsnorth also includes a short glossary at the back of the book with words that are not easily translatable; I suggest you flip through it before reading the book and then bookmark for easy reference later.

The language effectively put Buccmaster’s voice in my head. I heard him speak every line of this book, imagined his low growl of a voice. “ah i did not cnaw how small man is how weac,” he says at one point, “i did not see that a broc thing can not be unbroc only through wantan.” 

Buccmaster is a socman, a free man. He owns his land and answers only to the King, unlike many in the rest of England who are considered servants of their local Thegn or Lord. He is prideful and looks down upon everyone around him, calling them all “esols” (donkeys) and asking himself “why does they not lysten why does they not see.”

He sees himself not only as the man destined to rid England of the French, but as the man destined to return the old gods to their rightful place, to oust the Christ from a land where he doesn’t belong. “this was my wyrd [fate],” he writes, “this wolde bring the eald gods baec to angland and again we wolde rise again from our land again we wolde cum in to our selfs and be men in angland for efer.”

Whatever else he is, and he is many things, Buccmaster is a classic unreliable narrator. He sees himself as brave, important, chosen. His actions, however, show him to be something else entirely.

When the Normans, who killed his sons in battle, kill his wife and burn his house, barn, and livestock when Buccmaster does not pay the gold they have required, he takes to the woods. He’s going to be a Green Man, a guerrilla fighter, gather a small army, and send the Normans back to their ships. Weland the Smith — a legend, a spirit, older than the old gods — appears to Buccmaster and sends him on a mission to reclaim England.

At this point it seems the reader is in for a classic adventure story, with Buccmaster and his band of men sallying forth against the French invaders. But what Kingsnorth actually delivers is trickier than this. The novel becomes much more of a psychological drama than an adventure or battle story. Buccmaster manages to gather, at most, nine men, but he does not trust them. Weland, who speaks to Buccmaster in visions and dreams, berates him for not taking enough action, for not being the great man he is supposed to be. Buccmaster is paranoid and jealous and plagued by delusions of grandeur.

By the end, you realize Kingsnorth has taken a genius turn. It is no surprise that The Wake was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2014 and has received praise from the likes of Philip Pullman, Eleanor Catton, and Geoff Dyer, among others. He has taken what could have been a thoroughly predictable novel and turned it on its head, delivering surprise after surprise.

The novel becomes a meditation on what men are capable of as they are forced to watch their world fall apart around them. Powerless, damaged, and damned, Buccmaster of Holland is an unsettling character and his story is as disturbingly human as they come.

Katy Bowman is a writer living near Dayton, Ohio. She has had work published at the Antioch Review Blog, Circa: A Journal of Historical Fiction, the Rumpus, Flash Me Magazine, and on the Dayton Mom-Spot website. She reviews adventure books on her own site, the Edge of Uncertainty. She also volunteers as an assistant fiction editor for the Antioch Review.

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