Monday 7 September 2020

The Western Wind

Finished September 5
The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

This historical novel is not your typical mystery. It takes place over four days in February 1491, in a small English village. The narrator is the local priest, and the main subject of the book is the supposed death by drowning of the village's wealthiest man. I say supposed because there is no body, only the tale of a witness, or maybe more than one witness.
The story is told in a backwards fashion with the most recent day appearing first, and the earlier days coming in reverse order. As the story begins, the dean is present, living in the dead man's house and looking into his death, looking for a reason, for a murderer even. He has told the priest to announce a system of long pardons given for all who make their confession in these four days before lent, a pardon of forty days. Another thing that is important to know is that just before the events of this book, the village had a wedding celebration for one of the women who married a man from a nearby village. She was the priest's younger sister, and his only family, and he genuinely misses her.
As we work backwards over these four days, we see the background of some of the village people: The victim, Thomas Newman; the priest and how he came to be where he is in life; Oliver Townshend and his wife, the couple that had sold off most of their land to Newman over the last few years; the dean's reasons for being in the village so soon after the death. Each of the things we learn adds to the information about Newman's death, the people in the village that he interacted with and who depended on him for their livelihoods, his relationship with the priest, and the priest's relationship with the various village people and the dean. All of these things help the reader to understand what happened, and why it happened and what has happened to bring us to the final day included here.
The information about the confessions is quite interesting, the priest implementing a degree of privacy for this purpose that was unusual for England at the time, based on information that Newman provided from his wider experience. I also found it highly unusual how much of this the priest shared with the dean, and what he withheld.
The writing is excellent and one gets a real sense of the village and the life lived there by the inhabitants, and the precariousness of it all. I found it engrossing.

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