Buccmaster, the narrator of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel, “The Wake,” seems to be a normal man. He lives an agrarian life, maintaining a farm along with his family, occasionally thinking back to his childhood, and the time he spent with his grandfather. Omens herald the end of this relatively idyllic life, however; soon, Buccmaster’s world is horrifically upended when his country is besieged by foreign invaders, with one group wresting control of the government.
Buccmaster’s dilemma isn’t one set in some Dystopian or post-apocalyptic near future, however: “The Wake” is set against the backdrop of the Norman conquest of England.
This allows for some interesting juxtapositions: Kingsnorth is probing at the roots of English history here, showing a picture of a much more fragmented country than the one modern readers might be accustomed to. Religion, too, plays a part: Christianity has only been established in this part of the world for a few generations, and Buccmaster’s grandfather had followed a different system of belief.
There’s also the matter of the language. Kingsnorth wrote this book in a modified version of Old English. What that amounts to in practice is a lot of passages such as this: “He locs up at me and he saes buccmaster and i only locs at him he is a hund and a weosul this is triewe but he has been gifen blud for these things now.” It’s less daunting than it may seem at first: The rhythms establish themselves quickly, and the curtness and harshness of the prose inform the narrative. In an afterword, Kingsnorth describes the process he used to write the book, and it’s a fascinating read as well.
Although Buccmaster’s struggle is an understandable one, he proves to be a more complex figure, given to acts of violence against those he loves and those he hates alike. As Buccmaster becomes involved in acts of rebellion against the new power structure, the tone of the novel becomes even more frenetic, and his visions of the past and of archetypal figures egging him on become progressively more sinister.
In “The Wake,” Kingsnorth does not simply tell history: He invites the reader to inhabit it. And for all that it takes a little more time to process this work at first, the experience it yields is at once invigorating and terrifying. History almost a thousand years old feels intense and immediate, as close as the blood in one’s veins and the memories one can’t escape.
Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn.
By: Paul Kingsnorth.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 365 pages, $16.