Set in the fictional village of Oakham, Somerset, The Western Wind starts on Shrove Tuesday 1491. This is Day 4 of the story as this novel is told backwards over four days from Shrove Tuesday to the previous Saturday. It is the first person narrative of the parish priest, John Reve, a gentle and compassionate man coping with the death of his friend Thomas Newman who had drowned in the local river early on that Saturday.
The village of Oakham is out of step with the world around it, cut off by the river. The villagers have three times tried to build a bridge only to have it collapse, the most recent collapsing a week before the downpour during which Newman drowned. An educated, compassionate and well-travelled man, Newman had arrived in Oakham some years earlier and had gradually acquired most of the land surrounding the village from the lord of the manor, Oliver Townsend. Townsend, unlike those in surrounding areas, is not raising sheep but farming cattle and making cheese. A nearby monastery has it eyes on the Oakham land to expand their sheep runs.
Questions are slowly raised concerning the nature of Newman’s death, whether what looks merely to be misadventure is murder or suicide. The bishop’s representative, the Dean, a strict humourless man arrives to investigate and is more inclined to view the death as murder. In order to discover the culprit, the Dean tells Reve to set up a general absolution to encourage the parishioners to come to Confession, hoping that the murderer will be keen to clear his conscience in the shadows of Oakham’s confessional box. In his travels, Newman had seen confessional boxes in Italy, and described them to Reve. To afford his parishioners some anonymity, Reve set up a makeshift confessional box as, at this time, Confession took place with the penitent in public view, although this was either on a bench near the chancel or on a special seat or shriving stool set up in the chancel, out of hearing of eavesdroppers. Even in a confessional box, and especially in a small community, a priest may be aware who the penitent is—smells, voices, attitudes giving people away. It is here that the problems I have with this novel begin. Confessional boxes first appeared in Italy 100 years later than the setting of this novel, so Newman cannot have seen one on his travels; however, Harvey’s answer to this is that ‘sometimes you have to get things wrong to get them to feel right’. But the problem is much deeper than use of an artefact out of time. The seal of the confessional is such that the priest has an absolute duty not to disclose anything that he has learnt in the course of that confession, any priest who does so is automatically excommunicated. The Dean would never have suggested Reve use the sacrament of Confession to discover the murderer, Reve would never have gone along with such a suggestion.
Harvey has said that in writing the novel she had ‘the desire to explore the idea of confession’ and that she realized that to do that it needed to be set ‘in a time when confession was the norm’. I feel that the way she has used Confession displays a lack of understanding of the essential differences between confession as a secular concept and the operation of Confession both as a Catholic sacrament and historically.
At about two-thirds of the way through the book, the start of Day 1, something is revealed that I cannot believe would not have been foremost on Reve’s mind through the following days; this goes to the heart of who Reve is both as a man and as a priest. This is deliberate, part of Harvey’s intention was to create a narrator who was always keeping something back from the reader, ‘always trying to justify his actions by slightly deceptive means’. This is in keeping with Harvey’s exploration of ‘confession’ but it did not work for me. The novel became no longer an immersive experience but a contrived structure examining a philosophical point. It raises the question of just who Reve is confessing to. The modern reader? An unknown third party? Himself? I find it implausible that a man with Reve’s good points as man and priest would have been able to remove the hidden element from his mind – this is more that being ‘slightly deceptive’. Perhaps I have become too judgemental a reader.
There are also a small anachronisms to give a reader pause—a female churchwarden, people taking sugar in their tea. Possibly a general reader would skim over these without noticing, but for the committed reader of historical fiction they loom much larger.
The book is lyrical and the late 15th century village vividly created but this particular reader was left feeling that this was not historical fiction but a contemporary novel in early modern dress. Harvey herself said, ‘I never meant to write a historical novel.’ The problem I find with ‘historical’ novels written by people who are essentially writers of contemporary fiction is that their intention is not to use the past to understand the present but rather to bend the past to make a modern point. Such novels usually do not include the Historical Note that is so useful in understanding the changes an author has made in their presentation of the past and are often an excellent read. This novel lacks such a note.
The Western Wind is beautifully written but, for me, flawed. For readers without much knowledge of this period, or who consider the historical element of lesser importance, it would be a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Another review can be found here.