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Review: The Western Wind, by Samantha Harvey
Grove, 2018. 294 pp. $26

It’s 1491, and John Reve, priest at the English village of Oakham, faces political and social problems for which his religious studies couldn’t have prepared him. During Shrovetide, just before Lent, Thomas Newman drowns in the flood-swollen river, and his body hasn’t been found, only part of his shirt.

Since he didn’t confess or receive last rites, his soul may not enter heaven. Also, as Oakham’s richest resident, he owned most of the farm and grazing land, whose disposition hangs in the balance. If Newman died a suicide, his property will revert to the crown, which would destroy Oakham. But the village hasn’t prospered in years, a circumstance that covetous monks at a nearby abbey are planning to use as a pretext to take over, so if the death is accidental, they can argue that Oakham is so disordered, it failed to care for even its wealthiest inhabitant.

Accordingly, Father Reve, known as a benevolent presence in Oakham, must see justice done to Newman, his friend and most important parishioner, while protecting the villagers and their interests. Reve’s chief obstacle is his immediate superior, the church dean, a sour, unpleasant sort who takes up residence in Newman’s house, insists that the case must be murder, and orders Reve to find the killer via the confessional. Finding a sacrificial lamb, the dean says, is the only way to save Oakham.

Detail from The Fight between Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1559 (courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, via Wikimedia Commons)

Such an everyday tragedy — a man drowns in a river — yet the pressures and tensions that result are complex beyond imagining. I admire such deceptively simple premises, which allow deep exploration of universal themes through a tiny, specific incident. Through Reve’s first-person narration, Harvey covers an astonishing array of subjects, among them man’s relation to God; whether truth varies with circumstance; what modern thinking means; and principle versus expediency. Reve, for all his dedication, has more than a dash of free thinker in him, one reason Newman fascinates him. The dead man traveled widely, brought back religious art from Italy, and had a way of thinking for himself in religious matters. He’s a harbinger of the Renaissance, therefore, as his name, “new man,” suggests, while Reve evokes the French rêve, or “dream.”

Fitting these ideas within the frame of the mystery, the politics, and the religious rituals re-creates fifteenth-century English rural life in limpid detail. You grasp the outlook, fears, occupations, and mores of these humble folk, and though it seems effortless, that’s a tribute to Harvey’s economical storytelling and her mellifluous prose:

We know there are no wolf-men and no sea creatures of that kind; it’s children who believe in those. There are only spirits — ill-meaning spirits, who live as we all do on God’s earth but aren’t made by God. This is no secret to us, and men much sharper than me have proven it. The spirits are here on earth to test and strengthen us; when things die and decay, the decaying matter that has no home in heaven emits a fetid cloud of minuscule spirited matter that brings illness of all kinds — of the body, of our fates.

Casting off the supernatural only leads to other fancies, an irony of which Reve has no inkling. That those fancies would last until Pasteur underlines how stubborn and backward humans can be, even when they think they’re enlightened—an idea worth deeper reflection.

So breathtaking is The Western Wind that for most of it, I thought I was reading one of the best novels I’ve picked up in years — until page 235, to be precise. Then, almost four-fifths of the way through, Harvey plays a trick. Father Reve has a secret or three that he hasn’t revealed in his narration up to then, and which he now confesses, returning to an earlier point in the story. The writing remains brilliant, the story gripping, and if anything, more complex.

And yet, I resent what Harvey’s done as unfair, manipulative, and ungenerous. I remember no clue in the early chapters that Reve is an unreliable narrator, though this particular unreliability has to do with omission. Having earned my trust and convinced me that Reve possesses certain qualities, Harvey unwraps a version of, “Fooled you.”

I might have expected that had the narrative proceeded like Rashomon, the classic Kurosawa film about an incident told from several perspectives, each yielding a different interpretation. But here, Reve is the only narrator, so that to challenge my perceptions, he “forgets” or “neglects” to include certain facts.

The Western Wind is a thought-provoking tale, perhaps even more so that Reve has hidden layers. I only wish that the storytelling didn’t rest, in part, on a gimmick.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.