Title: The Western Wind
Author: Samantha Harvey
Publisher: Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Publication Date: 1st March 2018
Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
The Western Wind seems to have been everywhere recently. Longlisted and subsequently shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, it was also the Waterstones fiction book of the month for March this year. Although the 1490s time period isn’t my usual choice, the premise sounded so intriguing and creative that I thought I’d give it a try.
This novel follows four days in the life of village priest John Reve in the aftermath of the death of one of his parishioners. The really unique thing about this story, though, is that it moves backwards in time from the fourth day following Thomas Newman’s death towards the day of the death itself.
I was a bit sceptical about this method of telling the story, since I was worried the tension would all fall away as we moved backwards through each day – but Samantha Harvey definitely knew what she wanted to achieve, and executed it so well. Within each of the four days, an additional layer was peeled back to further explain certain characters’ motives and actions, until the incredibly clever final section of the book which had me utterly gripped.
Despite really enjoying the beginning and end of the book, my attention did waver during the middle two days. During this portion there was little in terms of excitement or pace, and many of Reve’s actions and musings made little sense until the final section of the book.
Another point to note is that this novel should not be read as an informative guide to life in 1490s England. I’d attempted to prepare for this by reading an article by Samantha Harvey in which she explained some of her choices regarding historical detail – but this didn’t stop some of the inaccuracies really grating on me. The worst culprit for me was a description of rain tapping on people’s coats, which brought to mind jarring images of modern anoraks and jerked me right out of the medieval setting.
Samantha Harvey’s evocative descriptions of the Somerset countryside thankfully helped bring the village of Oakham to life, even if the portrayal of the time period was sketchy. I got a real sense of the dismal, murky atmosphere in the village as its inhabitants attempted to come to terms with the loss of one of the wealthiest and most well-liked members of their parish.
Overall, I found The Western Wind to be a challenging but rewarding read. The middle section was a slog at times, and some of the inaccuracies were frustrating, but this is such a well-crafted and intelligent novel that I can definitely see why it made the Walter Scott Prize shortlist.