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Review: Paul Kingsnorth bracingly conjures a vanished world in ‘The Wake’

In the ashen 11th-century English countryside that Paul Kingsnorth has re-created in his debut novel, “The Wake,” if a huge blaec fugol (black bird) or a haeric star (comet) appears in the heofon (sky), you would do well to run.

Threats of all variety march, lurk or fly in the Norman-conquered ruins of “The Wake’s” “eald Angland” (old England). We feel them all the more vividly because the entire novel is written in a defamiliarizing “shadow tongue.” Kingsnorth describes this innovation in a postscript to the novel as “a pseudo-language intended to convey the feeling of the old language by combining some of its vocabulary and syntax with the English we speak today.”

If this sounds daunting — and there is no doubt that in the early pages, sentences like “see I had cnawan yfel was cuman when I seen this fugol glidan ofer” can be dizzy-making — the combination of a restricted vocabulary, a useful glossary to go with the postscript at the back, the presence throughout of many familiar words, not to mention plenty of intrigue, means that before a dozen or so pages have gone by the whole starts to crackle into focus. The effect is of seeing a devastated world torqued into language by an older, stranger mind.

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When this focusing happens — and those familiar with Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” will feel more than a glint of recognition — we find ourselves in the company of one Buccmaster of Holland, a dispossessed English landowner turned grene man (resistance fighter), who is telling his tale of woe some years after the Conquest. Buccmaster has lost everything to the Norman invaders and England seems ruined beyond all hope.

With other grene men who live, like him, deop in the deorc holt (deep in the dark forest), he has been waging a noble losing battle against the conquerors. He has a very fine sweord (sword) forged with runes along its blade, and he uses it against his French enemies and some of his English enemies too. Everything Buccmaster does is just and true and follows the old ways of Angland. He is one righteous dude.

Except he is not. And if there were nothing else on offer in “The Wake,” the audacity of Buccmaster’s wildly self-serving and ultimately self-damning testimony about the supposedly honorable part he has to play in his whipped country’s defense would be worth the price of entry: “see I had cnawn yfel was cuman” (see, I had known evil was coming), Buccmaster tells us at the outset as he describes the months leading to the invasion. But while it might be possible for a short while to believe we are in the presence of benevolent prescience, it doesn’t take our hero long to start insulting his neighbors, berating his sons, beating his wife, then gadding off to hunt for eels right when he is most crucially needed. In short, he is unpleasant and unreliable.

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Like a sweord-wielding, Saxon permutation of one of Thomas Bernhard’s epically irritated narrators, Buccmaster finds just about everyone in his life seriously lacking. He sees the haeric star and blaec fugol and tries to tell others and the esols (dumb donkeys) don’t get it. Death comes calling for all but a few and Buccmaster, of course, is one of these chosen ones. Off eel hunting, he escapes the destruction of his estate then becomes the sometimes bullying, sometimes buffoonish leader of a small group of outlaws. Every once in a while Buccmaster and his men kill a Frenchman. Then they go back to their hideout to sit around for long periods of time and shoot the breeze.

It would have been easy with a narrator like Buccmaster to play the whole thing for laughs, à la “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” but Kingsnorth works a masterful balance between Buccmaster’s largely unintentional hilarity and his grim purpose. Buccmaster is both buffoonish and all too deadly so that for all his misanthropy and insecurity and bragging and raving about authentic older gods — which sound, by the by, a great deal like Viking leftovers — there are scenes and descriptions of devastating, damning clarity. When Buccmaster kills someone with his sweord it is not pretty and one can’t turn many pages without coming across a burned corpse or a ruined farm or a description of English slaves building French castles.

Buccmaster’s tale, in the end, is as much awful confession as it is dark chronicle. Kingsnorth lets his striking creation talk on a little too long in parts — there is a great deal of description of 11th century campfire conversation and the story takes a while to get moving — but when it does, a whole vanished world flickers to life.

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The Wake

Paul Kingsnorth
Graywolf Press: 365 pp., $16 paper

Hunt is the author, most recently, of the novel “Neverhome.”


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