Magazine article The Spectator

'The Western Wind', by Samantha Harvey - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Western Wind', by Samantha Harvey - Review

Article excerpt

Samantha Harvey is much rated by critics and those readers who have discovered her books, but deserving of a far wider audience than she has hitherto gained -- so much so that just before Gaby Wood's appointment as literary director of the Booker Prize Foundation, the critic wrote a lengthy exploration of Harvey's prodigious qualities, describing her as 'this generation's Virginia Woolf'. The reasons for her relative neglect are not complex: her work is deeply serious, her novels rarely mining the same seam; she has featured on numerous long- and shortlists but failed to scoop any major awards; and we don't see her on the telly or at the head of newspaper columns.

I'm not sure about the comparison to Woolf, style-wise, but Wood's judgment is bang on otherwise. And perhaps Harvey's fourth novel will change that. Leaving aside its structural daring and prose at once precise and suggestive, it is an exhilarating mystery that pitches familiar tropes -- a bereaved and fearful community, a melancholy investigator and his unsympathetic superior, a frantic search for deeds and wills -- into the heart of late 15th-century rural England. The collision of the early modern and the present-day is startling and energising, and never does it seem stagey.

A man has tumbled into the river that cuts Oakham off from the surrounding countryside, and is presumed dead; as the novel opens, his body is spotted, and promptly disappears once again, leaving only his green shirt as evidence. It is Shrovetide, and the villagers are preparing for Lent by giving themselves over to feasting, dancing and other pleasures of the flesh, but it is not the suspension of revelry that hangs over them, but the loss of Thomas Newman, a beacon of charity and morality who has supported efforts to build a bridge and thereby improve their connections to the outside world. That is no small thing: Oakham, in the words of its priest John Reve, is 'a village of scrags and outcasts', its crops regularly soaked to uselessness, its inhabitants filled with superstition.

Perhaps its sole boast -- and this is both unverified and of ambiguous benefit -- is that its church contains 'the only confession box in England', which Reve has wheedled out of the dean on the grounds that secrecy will prevent the villagers from seeking out travelling friars to protect their anonymity. …

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