SAMANTHA HARVEY

THE WESTERN WIND

Samantha Harvey is the author of The WildernessAll Is SongDear Thief and The Western Wind. She appeared on the longlists for the Bailey’s Prize and the Man Booker, and the shortlists of the James Tait Black Award, the Orange Prize, the Guardian First Book Award and the Walter Scott Prize. The Wilderness won the Betty Trask Award in 2009. She is a tutor on the MA course in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.

 

ABOUT THE WESTERN WIND

15th century Oakham, in Somerset; a tiny village cut off by a big river with no bridge. When a man is swept away by the river in the early hours of Shrove Saturday, an explanation has to be found: accident, suicide or murder? The village priest, John Reve, is privy to many secrets in his role as confessor. But will he be able to unravel what happened to the victim, Thomas Newman, the wealthiest, most capable and industrious man in the village? And what will happen if he can’t?

Moving back in time towards the moment of Thomas Newman’s death, the story is related by Reve – an extraordinary creation, a patient shepherd to his wayward flock, and a man with secrets of his own to keep. Through his eyes, and his indelible voice, Harvey creates a medieval world entirely tangible in its immediacy.

The Western Wind is published by Vintage.

STAUNCH SAYS

Atmospheric, relentlessly weather-torn, The Western Wind is a medieval crime mystery that sucks you in like the muddy landscape the little village of Oakham is mired in. A man has drowned in the river, but did he jump, was he pushed, or did he fall? And if he hasn’t received last rights, does his soul face eternal damnation?

These are the vey high stakes for the hapless priest whose responsibility that soul is and who must investigate the death to find a murderer or an explanation. Over four long days, Reve is harried and exasperated by the regional Dean, who nags at his elbow expecting results. The seven sins are woven through this muddy tapestry as the whole God-fearing village – each member a sharply drawn character – is implicated, terrified, afraid for the future and wracked with grief or guilt. Each bring their often hilarious confessions to Reve, while the offer of a 40 day’s pardon to see them through Lent is held up as bait to lure out the truth. A fascinating insight into the times, the privations, the sheer smallness and hardship of life that grinds on at subsistance level.  Descriptions are achingly vivid – you feel the mud, the cold, the wet, the misery as if you were there, yet the result is not only intriguing but entertaining. The mystery unravels backwards in time, the language feels right and this unique, deftly told story is exquisitely handled in every respect.

READ THE OPENING CHAPTERS OF THE WESTERN WIND

The Western Wind

Day 4

Shrove (also Pancake) Tuesday,

17th February, 1491

 

Bulrushes

Dust and ashes though I am, I sleep the sleep of angels. Most nights nothing wakes me, not til I’m ready. But my sleep was ragged that night and pierced in the morning by someone calling to me in fear. A voice hissing, urgent, through the grille,

‘Father, are you in there?’

‘Carter?’

Even in a grog, I knew this voice well. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘A drowned man in the river. Down at West Fields. I – I was down at the river to see about clearing a tree that’s fallen across it. A man there in the water, pushed up against the tree like a rag, Father.’

‘Is he dead?’

‘Dead as anything I’ve ever seen.’

I’d slept that night on the low stool of the confession booth with my cheek against the oak. A troubled night’s sleep, very far from the angels. Now I stood and pushed my skirts as flat as they’d go. Outside looked dark; it could have been any time of night or early morning, and my hands and feet were rigid with cold. I shifted the oak screen enough to let myself out of the booth – which isn’t even a booth as such, but an improvised thing made of props and drapes – and there was the flushed, worried, candlelit face of Herry Carter.

‘Went to find you in your bed but you weren’t there,’ Carter said, words tripping. ‘I wondered if you might be here.’

I wanted to tell him that I didn’t usually sleep upright in this booth, I didn’t know what had happened exactly that made me do it that night. But Carter had the look of somebody who couldn’t care less, he only wanted to get back to the river.

‘Maybe there’s a chance for Last Rites,’ he said, with lips set sullen and thin.

‘You said he was dead.’

‘But if we could get a bit of holy wine down his dead throat – ’

A dead throat isn’t amenable to wine, I thought, but thought without saying.

‘If we could do at least that,’ Carter said, ‘maybe he could have died a half-decent death. Otherwise – ’

Otherwise his fate would be ugly, and his time spent hanging like a lifeless rag off a fallen tree would seem like a happy memory. Herry Carter was right to wish for better. So we two left the church and ran. The first thing I noticed was the wind, which was strong, bitter and easterly. It was coming up to dawn and the sky had  the slightest of light. We ran down the track towards West Fields, which is nearly a mile away and much of it diagonally across the ham. The river itself takes over two miles to cover the same distance. Myself, alb flapping heavily in the wind like a sail, bottle of holy wine sloshing in my right hand, holy oil in left, quick-moving, if breathless and with thighs full of fire. Like a deer, my father used to say, with a wink, because he liked to shoot deer. Carter, young, short, strong on his legs, blond hair blown sideways, trouser knees hardened with another day’s mud, all plain, buttery boyhood. He sprinted ahead with his arms pumping.

The ham was flooded, but not as much as it had been; the wind seemed to have pushed the water back into the river. Above us a huge, fast sky that’d be blue when the sun rose, and everything but the wind was wet – the track, the grass, the earth, our feet and ankles, the tree trunks, the nests and the fledglings within. My toes were frogs in a swamp. When we reached the boundary of the lush grazing land at West Fields the world got wetter – sodden sheep with shivering lambs, cows paddling upland in herds trying to find drier ground so that they could eat without having to drink, Townshend’s horses standing foursquare in bog with their muzzles resting on each other’s drenched flanks. Only the wind itself was dry, dry and so cold, and blowing away long days of rain.

‘There,’ said Carter, and he pointed off towards the river seventy or eighty paces ahead. ‘I left my axe to mark it.’

Not much of a marker; with its blade rammed into the river bank, it barely stood a foot above the ground. You’d have needed a marker to find it. But Herry Carter had young eyes and his mind was focused on nothing else, just that axe, and that bit of river that had delivered up a poor old rag of a dead man. Carter upped his pace with the wind at his back and was there near the axe, striding this-way-that-way along the bank, ankle-deep in water by the time I caught up.

‘It’s gone,’ he said. Desperate-sounding man, a rasp working at his voice. ‘The body. It was there.’ There being the fallen tree, in the crook of a branch. The river was high and fierce and roiled around that branch; nothing could have stayed in place there, nothing. Not a man’s body, not even a cow’s body. How could Carter have thought it would? But then, what could he have done? He couldn’t have rescued the man on his own.

‘Where’s it gone?’ Carter was saying, over and again. Rushing up and down like a sheepdog. Then he stopped, looked plain at the water and his tone fell flat. ‘Where’s the body gone? It was right there.’

My once-white alb was soaked and muddy almost knee-high and I felt something like defeat, because I’d have to ask Carter now, and I didn’t want to have to ask. I’d wanted to see for myself. The words came to my throat and stuck and wouldn’t be dislodged with any amount of swallowing. I’d have looked anywhere to avoid the sight of his pitiful, aimless running. Anywhere: downwards, upwards. Upwards, to the stars that were fading with the dawn.

When I looked back at Carter finally, he was to my left, twenty yards downstream, standing knee-deep and thunderstruck by a thick cluster of bulrushes leaning in the wind. Only then, coming closer, did I see he was holding something of brightish green, a piece of cloth or clothing, which he lifted feebly. A shirt.

‘Found this there,’ he said, a curt flick of his hand towards the bulrushes. ‘Just hanging there.’

So then I didn’t even have to ask the question I hadn’t wanted to ask, because the shirt made it clear who the drowned man was. We both knew who owned it; even in the poor light, that shirt belonged to one man only. Everybody else had beige shirts or brown or grey, of a wool that had never managed to look unsheeply. Nobody else had one of good linen that had once been as green as the swaying meadow of flax that gave rise to it. Faded now, yes, but all the same it was a fine Dutch shirt. Even before Carter found the shirt, from the moment he saw the drowned man, he must have known it was Newman. How many other poor, bloated dead men could there be floating down this river? How many other men disappeared into it three days before?

But it’s our nature to deny what frightens us, and it’s not wicked or dull. Isn’t there always a bright, willing part of us that keeps hoping that what we know isn’t true? Carter tried to fold the shirt into a neat and reverent square – Newman had led an ordered life, even if his death was disorderly. The shirt was too wet to hold shape and went loose and roomy in his hands. With some mumbling he bid his fumbling fingers to fold it again, and again it fell slack. Then he shoved it in the waistband of his trousers and ran downstream along the edge of the bank, howling Newman’s name, splashing through water that was pink with the first glint of sun.

Oh, to throw the holy wine and oil into the river! Bad enough that the dead man didn’t get to confess, but what hope was there for him if he couldn’t have a drop of wine in him? Carter was right, it might even have been enough to have it in his mouth, on his lips. A cross of oil on his forehead. And now there was Carter, possessed by demons, up and down the bank and the wind was unkind and constant and our legs were soaked, and the day had a despairing mood.

Soon Carter came back, panting and angry, and he sank to a crouch.

‘It’s gone,’ he said, not for the first time. ‘He’s gone.’

‘He’ll be halfway to the sea by now,’ I replied – which we knew wasn’t possible, but the point was the same. After the five bends and two oxbows past the village the river straightens and quickens, and with days of rain it was as rapid as a cart downhill, with no regard for things in its way. Carter nodded, and crumpled into himself.

A boy, really, and a good one at that. One who’d had the spirit knocked out of him that morning. Newman was his friend and a father figure, and in the three days since he’d drowned, Carter had dabbled with the notion that though his friend had died, he might still be alive. After all, the body hadn’t been found. If a dead body disappeared, then so did death itself, so Carter seemed to think, and I’d been touched by this optimism, even if it was made of crooked timbers.

That river was cunning and of too many moods – throwing itself thickly over a dead man so that we couldn’t say our dignified goodbyes. This was the second time I’d run to its banks to find Newman’s body, and the second time I’d failed. By my estimations, if nature thwarts you more than once in the same endeavour, you may have to start wondering if it’s something other than bad luck – but I didn’t drive this point home to my friend. ‘Be strong now, Herry,’ I told him, and affection drew my hand to his head. We stayed like that with our backs braced against the wind, and my alb, despite the mud and wet, flowed keenly outwards and forward. The bulrushes bent and hummed. Even in my despair, I liked it that the wind made them do that.

 

We went back across the fields. In that direction my skirts flowed out behind me like a bridal gown while the cassock underneath slapped at my shins – and I beg pardon for talking so much about what was happening at my lower leg, but so would anyone whose skirts weighed the same as two buckets of water and behaved like something living. I was ashamed to be feeble and wheezy from a fever the month before, and stringlegged. I knew the sight of my hair in this wind – a mass of dark, wild curls around the tonsure. I was the one who looked possessed now, not that Carter was paying any attention. He, like me, had set his whole cause against the wind, which was hurling itself at our chests. Carter’s face was stone and refused conversation. He refused even to look at me. In the improved light, and moving slower, I could see better the cut in front of his right ear that he got a few days before; he slipped while fixing the roof of the church porch and caught it on a piece of slate. It was a sharp slash the length of half a finger and I didn’t like the redness and depth of it, the slight greenish weeping and conkerish swell.

We reached the track again, where it forked left to the bridge and right to the village. We turned right. There was a pair of hands pushing me forward, away from that half-built bridge where Newman, we supposed, drowned, and when I glanced that way the clouds were thick old brutes, whereas ahead they were high and sparse and turning fair. Then the sun: a bronzy song rising unseen behind Oak Hill, the long woody ridge we also call the Lazy Dog (sometimes just The Dog, if we’re lazy). The ridge runs along the north-east edge of Oakham, which means the new sun can never be seen from the village, but its light spreads a wide glow over the trees on the ridge, as it did in that instance; a glow that starts small and hot, and turns cool, rosy and vast, in a way that always made me think the sea was just the other side. Off the open ham the wind had less fury and we walked together in silence, Carter reaching behind him from time to time to make sure the shirt was still in his waistband. I wanted to comfort him, but how, without prayers and parables? They were all I had. It was clear Carter didn’t want any of that. Grief had made him angry and impatient. ‘

‘That cut,’ I said, ‘by your ear. Doesn’t look to be healing.’

‘It’s healing,’ he said.

‘To me it looks worse.’

‘It’s better than yesterday.’

‘I don’t think it is.’ He forged on ahead, short of temper, long of stride. I said, ‘I don’t like the look of it much.’

‘Then I say don’t look.’ And he stopped, there at the corner by the birches that were festooned with rags once bright, and knelt on the stones of the track. In front of him, in the longer grass, was a dead dog. He turned to me, turned back. ‘Was that here when we came?’

‘I didn’t see it,’ I said, ‘but it must have been. We were running, we wouldn’t have noticed.’ It was sunrise and I had first morning prayers to give, then confession to take, and I couldn’t linger over a dog. But Carter put a hand to the dog’s ribs. ‘Cold as clay,’ he muttered. Yet it had a healthy black sheen that made it look like it would get up and run, and we’d have been convinced it would, if not for the lolling tongue and lack of breath. Mostly, when you see a dead dog – or a dead anything – you can assume it starved or was beaten, or was hit by a galloping horse, or dropped dead through age or demoralisation. This one looked thin but not starved, not beaten, not injured, not old, in fairly good humour. It just lay as though dropped from above.

‘Wouldn’t we have noticed it?’ Carter said, his hand flat on the animal’s side.

‘It was still dark.’

‘And we were running.’

‘We were frantic.’ For a few moments we stood, and my grip was tight around those small bottles of oil and wine; we’d both been so jittered by this thing with Newman, and now we patrolled like sheriffs over the corpse of a dog as if it was a strange or sinister thing.

‘It might – ’ Carter tried, ‘I might – ’ He put his hand to that shirt and was tugging at it. ‘Maybe I was mistaken about what I saw in the river earlier.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No.’ ‘

I might not have seen a body caught in that tree, maybe it was just a shadow – people are going to say that maybe it was just a shadow.’

‘And the shirt?’ I asked. ‘Was that just a shadow?’

‘But you said it yourself, you said it – it was still dark. If we didn’t see a dead dog that was there, maybe I did see a dead man that wasn’t?’

I didn’t want to upset Carter, but there was something to be said for facts. ‘On Saturday dawn a man was seen tumbling down that river, Herry,’ I said, as kindly and clearly as I could. ‘It was Robert Tunley who glimpsed him and he said it might well have been Newman. Newman hasn’t been seen since and he’s the only man missing from the village. We know it’s unlikely to have been an outsider who drowned. God knows we don’t get many passers-by.’

Because there were no outsiders, because the river cuts us off. But this wasn’t the time for lamenting our fallen bridge, much as the urge rose in me. I put my hand on his shoulder. ‘And now a body washes up downstream – ’

‘Not far enough downstream,’ Carter appealed. His foot prodded at the dog’s belly. He shrugged my hand away. ‘You can see how lively the water is – in three days a body would’ve got much further.’

‘And you can see the journey it would have to take, round the oxbow at Odd Mill, the other at Burn Wood, a body could get lodged anywhere along there, hooked on fallen branches, run against banks – ’

Carter turned his shoulder from me. ‘People aren’t going to believe me when I say I’ve seen Tom Newman’s body, it’ll be me who’s the laughing stock.’

‘You found his shirt,’ I said. ‘You have it there. What are people going to say about that?’

We stood without words, and it was cold. His shoulders were dropped so low my hands almost went to lift them and my arms to go around him in comfort. Forget what others think, I wanted to say. You saw what you saw – others don’t matter. I clutched the bottles to me; the wind whipped and rattled through the birch copse. Such sadness then swept me, and I didn’t know how trees kept enthusiasm for growing, when the wind, rain and snow harassed them all winter like that.

It was by some wordless consent that Carter and I began moving, prompted perhaps by the smell of cooking fat that came faint and fleeting. It might have been imagined because it came only once, for a moment, but all I knew suddenly was eggs, was bread scooped into the warm fat of the previous day’s bacon, and with one smell I gained a horse’s hunger. Carter might have felt hungry too because he sped up and walked at a pace I couldn’t match in those heavy, wet vestments. By the time we were at the village, I was some thirty paces behind.

Carter raced towards his home, a quick pelt from the church. Probably wanted to show his wife the shirt and get her to wash it, so he could hang on to it, some sorry keepsake and trinket of a giant love that’d gone from him, swept up like a twig in a crow’s beak.

‘Carter!’ I wanted to offer to anoint the shirt at least, though it was a blunt idea, anointing a piece of old linen. ‘Herry! Herry Carter!’ But Carter didn’t respond. He was holding the shirt above his head and waving it about as if there were people to see him.

Go ahead and suffer then, I thought – not cruelly. Men and women clasp to their right to suffer, and sometimes it’s better to let them for a while. I would mention Newman again in Mass and arrange to have that tree cleared from the river. Not that day, though; that day the hours were going to pass before we knew it; I needed half an hour’s sleep. Try not to dream of that body getting dragged downstream, try not to be heart-broke over how savage death is. Think only of the pink light on the bulrushes where the shirt was found, and think only of how good it was that the shirt was found there, there, in the gentle holiness of the bulrushes; it was the best of all possible signs, and if a man had to die such a violent and unresolved death before disappearing as if swallowed into the whale, at least something of his appeared draped – caught, held, salvaged, saved – in that crowd of rushes, like a man who had fallen back into the arms of his people.

Was the light on the rushes even pink? Maybe not, but in my heart it was now and would always be. There in my thoughts, on the way home, was my sister’s voice wise and soft: The tongues and pens of men must fall silent in wonder. Why I should have heard this I can’t say, except that I was tired and sad and glad and angry and comforted all at once, and when I opened the door to the church I let myself cry over Thomas Newman, and was surprised by how long it took for the tears to stop coming.

Superstition

‘A priest is also a judge and a sheriff, whether or not he wants to be.’

‘So he is,’ I said, without surprise, because I’d got used to the dean appearing before me in the church, waiting, with nothing better to do. This time he was leaning against the pillar near the opening to the vestry, winding around his child-sized fist the spare rosary that he must have lifted from the nail in the porch.

‘I hear Newman’s body has reappeared? Or – had reappeared,’ he said. ‘Before it vanished again.’

‘Word reaches you quickly.’ I’d left Carter only ten minutes before – come into the church, gone to the vestry to find dry things to wear. Hidden my tears in the stole that hung from a peg til the white silk was grey in patches. When I came out the dean was already there; he had what they called a nose for the nasty. I stood in front of him with the new alb folded on top of the new cassock, a great heavy pile of cold cloth to take home and change into. Nothing to be done about my shoes.

‘I saw you and Carter running back from somewhere,’ he said, ‘and I was, well, curious. So I asked Carter where you’d been.’

‘Clearly you’re the better judge and sheriff.’ He looked at me. He, small and neat like a field mouse brushed by panicked dash through wheat and grass. Its little heart always pounding in a tiny, courageless chest. I, tall and precarious, my eyes made raw by tears. Robes mud-smeared and stained, shamefully, with goose-fat.

‘This is the last day,’ he said, and then he took from his burse a small roll of paper, which he unravelled. It was the pardon that had been pinned on the church door since Saturday. ‘You know, don’t you, that a man like Newman can’t die without explanation?’

I went to speak; he didn’t allow it.

‘And you’re going to say that there is an explanation – the river is high, the rain’s been hard, men aren’t fish. They fall in, they drown.’

‘They do.’

‘But Newman isn’t the kind of man who falls in a river.’

I went to the altar to rest the vestments there; they were heavy. I was wet and cold. I asked wearily, ‘Is there a kind of man who falls in a river?’

‘This is the last day,’ he repeated, and I looked up at our east window, which allowed a morning light that was wide, thin and silver. He flourished the piece of paper as if I’d never seen it before, and as if it hadn’t been pinned for three days to my church door.

‘This pardon is our best hope of luring the murderer to confession – ’

‘There isn’t a murderer.’

‘So we think, until one is lured. As I said, this pardon is our best hope of luring the murderer to confession, and it isn’t going to be offered after today. Tomorrow, too late. A good pardon, Reve – the most you or I could offer, the most anyone in this sorry parish is ever going to get. I can tell you there are plenty of people here who need it, murder or not. You aren’t a village that’s going to crowd heaven. Do you know purgatory has a waiting room? They call it Oakham, there are so many of you there.’

When I was a boy I’d thought that anger lived in large men; my father was a large man. It was still strange to me when men like the dean, pale and trivial men with narrow faces, could house so much anger. It sat beneath cool skin, in blue-veined hands that shook so slightly most wouldn’t notice. But I noticed; the pardon between his fingers tremored like a catkin.

‘If you hate Oakham I suppose you could leave,’ I said. ‘Not everybody likes it that you’ve taken up in Newman’s house anyway.’

Eyebrow raised, a wristy wafting of the pardon and he said, in a voice trying to aim a tone lower than was natural to it,

‘I have a death to investigate.’

‘Oh yes.’

‘If I went away now, on the last day of confession before Lent, on the last day a generous pardon is offered, after all this hard work – ’ He paused, and I was left to wonder what hard work he imagined he’d done. ‘Well, I don’t want to beat the bushes so that others can get the birds, if you understand me.’

You don’t want to leave before somebody is tied to a stake, I thought. You don’t want to leave on this of all days, this day of celebration, in case the village runs in wild riot, like the animals we are.

‘Oh, I understand you,’ I said. I bent to pick up a fingerlength of dogwood that must have fallen from the chancel pillar sconce, where they faded slowly with the witch hazel and wintersweet – my sister’s wedding flowers, now dying. Then I didn’t know what to do with this bit of claret twig, so I held it uselessly. I wanted him to feel that it was more worthy of my attention than him, though I don’t think he noticed.

Towards the west of the church, on the north wall opposite the entrance, we have a wall painting of St Christopher carrying the child Jesus across the water – a huge figure, a giant or as good as, with the child scooped in one arm, feet crossed in the saint’s palm, the size of a week-old lamb. It covers the whole of that wall, from rafters to lintel. Pinks, reds and yellows. It’s been said that if you saw it within a day of your death, it was as good as Last Rites. If your death was sudden or solitary, and you had no Last Rites, no holy oil, no sacrament, sight of St Christopher could still let you off hell. If Newman had seen it on Friday, before he drowned, his soul would be in safe transit to the afterlife by now. Had he seen it? Nobody but Newman could know; I’d flayed my memory trying to find the answer, but no answer would come. Nothing. I took up the bundle of vestments again, and went to the painting and knelt.

The dean watched, and turned away in frustration, and watched, and sighed, and handled the chalice that he’d taken absently from the altar, rolling its stem between his fingers, with the rosary still around his knuckles. I should say our rosary, Oakham’s. A gift from Robert Tunley. He put the chalice down with a sudden impatience, walked to the chancel pillar, scratched his nail at the stone, swirled on his heels, peered down the length of the small church towards the confession box. I didn’t desist from my prayer, but I knew everything he did because I knew how to see without looking, while he only knew how to look without seeing. I knew he was about to lose patience and would come scuttling towards me.

‘Reve,’ he said finally, clip-clipping short, quick steps through the nave. He was waggling his fingers for me to rise. ‘Enough, Reve. If I can’t go to the archdeacon by tomorrow morning with some information about Newman’s death, we will all suffer for it. You’ve taken confession all day for the last two days – you have one more day of confession to discover something. Tell me you’ll discover something.’

I raised my head from prayer. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘haven’t we already this morning discovered something?’

‘A vanishing corpse and a stinking shirt?’

‘Thomas Newman’s shirt. And where was that shirt found? In the bulrushes. The bulrushes. Signifying the arms of God, as you know – Newman’s safe delivery to him. How did it end up there? And yet there it is, and I don’t know about you, but there are few enough signs from God for me to take heart from this one.’

His mouth opened to argue, then closed. His posture eased, his lips moved to the faintest of smiles, and someone pleasant appeared in his expression, the boy his mother must have once loved. I wondered what had softened him. I saw him for a moment as I’d seen him on Saturday when he’d first ridden into Oakham on his sad and soulful mare. How unknowable men are, full of corners. Old and mean sometimes, and suddenly young and kind. But to no end, I thought; he was never kind for long.

Sure enough, he looked upwards, raised his arms. ‘A shirt in some rushes, hallelujah!’ Then dropped his arms. ‘Not enough, Reve, sadly. Discover something else.’

I stood with my armful of cloth and the spindle of dogwood still in my hand, and nothing to say. ‘As for that shirt, Carter gave it to me.’ He affected pleasure at a good, clean idea, his hands brought together, a brow lifted. ‘I’ll hoist it up on the maypole at Old Cross, shall I, to remind us all of the shortness of these dear little lives we live?’

I bowed, because he was the rural dean and I only a priest, and for no other reason under the sun. ‘Excuse me,’ I said.

INTERVIEW WITH SAMANTHA HARVEY

Bridget Lawless talks to Samantha Harvey

 

BL:  The Western Wind conjures an incredibly vivid picture of a medieval village struggling to survive. As well as the limitations of its land, the battle with the elements seems utterly relentless.  In fact, the weather itself is a hugely effective character in this novel. Do you think weather is an underused feature in contemporary literature, despite being so massively topical?

SH:  The weather is such a player in this novel because it has to be. If you live in a world without heating or lighting and it’s February, you will be obsessed by the weather. You’ll be obsessed by the weather if you depend upon it to grow your food and sustain your animals; if the bridge you so dearly want to build keeps being washed away by rain; if you’re waiting for a westerly wind as a sign from God and the only wind that comes is easterly.

The weather is bound up in the fabric of this time and this place and it would have been impossible to write the novel without its perpetual presence. A novel has to deal with the things that are inherent to it, whatever they happen to be.

BL:  Our narrator, priest John Reve, comes across as a weak, beleagured man labouring at his duties while tempted by all manner of trespass.  You managed to weave in the seven deadly sins through this story, hidden in plain sight, and they play a significant part in the mystery of Thomas Newman’s death and its investigation. Was that a deliberate element of the structure from the outset, or did it evolve in the writing?

SH:  No, it wasn’t deliberate and I hadn’t been aware of doing it until you asked this question. (!) But morality in medieval society was a highly structured and overt thing. People lived by the edicts of the scriptures as conveyed to them (and maybe embellished or made up) by their priest. Churches were sculpted and painted in such a way as to be readable by an illiterate congregation, and to educate that congregation. The Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Virtues, the Danse Macabre, the Wheel of Life – these paintings were admonishments, encouragements, warnings, while you stood or knelt and prayed. They weren’t subtle or gentle; they were upfront, strident reminders of what you had to do if you wanted to live a good afterlife – in other words, pass swiftly through purgatory; not go to hell. So, to my mind, they would have structured the thoughts and actions of those living in their shadow – which is, I guess, why they in part structure this novel.

BL:  The story unravels backwards in time over four days, revealing more and more of each character in the process.  It’s a brilliant device used to great effect.  Technically, is it difficult to achieve? Do you write it in chronological order and turn it around, or did you write the last day first and work back?

SH:  I wrote it as the reader reads it – beginning with Day 4 and working backwards to Day 1. Technically, is it difficult? Yes, but only in the way that all plotting is difficult in a novel.  You’re asking yourself: which character knows what? Who believes what? What does the reader know? What do I want the reader to think at point x and point y? Release of information is at the heart of any novel, no matter how subtly it’s at work.

There are differences with a reverse chronology – for instance we see characters act before we know what immediate cause prompts the action, and this means that as a writer you’re working with two decks – one that reflects events as they seem to be, and another that reflects events as they really are (once the cause has been discovered). With the first deck you’re trying to keep a reader on board, to make sense of a character’s actions even where the motives are unclear. This isn’t always easy.

Editing is also more of a task – checking that an apple eaten on Monday isn’t there on the table on Tuesday. My priest starts the novel with an apple that, by the end, has become several, as a sort of structural aid for myself and the reader – a way of quantifying which day we are on. Is it a two-apple day? A five-apple day? I needed these props to keep my focus as I wrote.

And, with a reverse chronology, there are differences in nuance. The outcomes for any character are in fact things that have already happened, so there’s no hope for redemption or making good. I think this makes for a more melancholic read. If your reader isn’t reading with any hope of redemption, what is she/he reading for? You must provide other reasons that might be more subtle – less what happens? and more how and why did what happens come to be?

BL:  This is essentially a crime novel set in a time before police. Investigating an unexplained death falls to those of the church. The fate of the man’s soul is as much in question as the means of his death. Indeed there are a number of ‘get-out’ options, such as having looked upon the painting of St Christopher, that would ensure Newman’s salvation. Were those real devices in that day? And is that what sparked your interest in telling this story?

SH:  What sparked my interest in the time period/story was confession itself – the extraordinary mystic theatre of the confession box. I was compelled by the act of confession as a social norm, as a practice that keeps the wheels of a community turning. And also compelled by the question of what replaces confession in our modern secular society. Confession is a mechanism for the unburdening of sins – not a word I like; let’s say wrongdoings – and, in the unburdening, the forgiveness of those wrongdoings.  Without that social mechanism, what do we do with guilt? How do we express it? Who forgives us? It isn’t crime that I’m interested in, so much as these questions of guilt and forgiveness.

But yes, these ‘get-out’ mechanisms – St Christopher and the like – did exist. Everything was about the afterlife – whether you went to heaven or hell. Dying without being shriven (confessed) was a big deal because it meant you could only go to hell. Yet what would happen if you died suddenly, without a priest to hand? So bespoke rules would kick in that might circumvent damnation, and this one about St Christopher was one.

This is something I love about this time period – all the post-hoc little addendums and additions to the laws of scripture. People were making it up as they went along.  So the rule book became enormous and convoluted – a bit like cricket.

BL:  Despite plenty to fear for the villagers of Oakham in terms of hunger, cold, poverty, sickness  failed crops and land-grabbing monks, fear of God eclipses all.  The idea of a 40 day pardon as incentive to confess to Newman’s murder (or sell out a neighbour) is an attractive bribe, and brings us into Reve’s makeshift box to eavesdrop. It felt as if you’d had fun coming up with some of those confessions, which all cleverly developed character as well. Were they based on research, or was that some wild imagining?

SH:  They were fun to come up with – they’re a mix of real and made up. I read a lot while researching this novel and some of my sources came from Eamon Duffy’s amazing book, The Stripping of the Altars. You find that the same sorts of confessions come up again and again, often petty or superstitious things. I also used niche little research papers I found – so, for example, the rural dean in my novel speaks about a man whose home shared a wall with the parish church, and the wall had a hole in through which the man watched Mass, rather than attending in person. This story is true, taken from some church records from the 15th century.

Others are just my imaginings and hunches. I find the idea of confession so fascinating – so utterly serious in its nature and also utterly irreverent and humorous. The way you confessed would reflect your personality; some happy-go-lucky souls would under-confess and say the bare minimum, some fearful and cautious souls would over-confess and exaggerate a wrong-doing, just in case. You could die at any moment (whenever God chose to pluck you) – given that, better to have over-cleared your conscience than leave it murky. Some might confess to what they didn’t do, as my character Sarah does. Some come to confession every week; others once a year, at Lent, as was mandatory. Really, the setting of a confession box is a perfect dramatic stage for the playing out of people’s lives – their fears, desires, idiosyncrasies, the trivia and gravity of their days on earth.

BL:  The river also plays a major role in this novel – as indeed do all four elements. A bridge to make Oakham more accessible  – and more escapable – has already failed, and the wealthy patron who could make it possible has succumbed to the river itself.  What were the main features of the village you felt were essential to create its character?

SH:  Oakham is on a potential trade and pilgrim route that could make it worldly and wealthy, but it’s caught between a bridgeless river and a ridge. As you say, attempts to build a bridge have failed because no Oakhamers possess good stonemasonry skills (and bridge-building expertise was a very specialist and modern skill in the 15th century). Traders and pilgrims have to make a lengthy detour around the village to find the nearest crossing point.

So, Oakham remains an unvisited backwater. It hasn’t, unlike everywhere around, moved to sheep farming and wool production – the industries that brought vast wealth to much of the southwest of England at this time. In part this is because its previous Lords have kept it as a refuge for those made homeless by the land-grabs of the wool industry. In part it’s also because it has good wheat-growing land and wheat was a premium crop. But the villagers are so preoccupied with subsistence farming – and thus at the mercy of the weather – that they have no capacity to expand that industry. Its wheat-growing terrain also makes it attractive to the neighbouring monks who are planning their own land-grab.

All of these features were crucial to my understanding of Oakham and then to the lives it sustains and the story that unfolds there. I could point to the exact location of Oakham on a map, but it isn’t there. I like to leave open the possibility in the reader’s mind that it really did once exist, but didn’t survive modernity.

BL:  The Western Wind of the title is a long-for sign from God that John Reve prays for without much luck. It would absolve, it would cleanse, and it would buoy up the town after the loss of its most important and benelovant man. Do you think we in the current climate emergency risk putting our fate in hope and prayer, crossed-fingers or refusal to face facts to save us? Are we ultimately as superstitious today as the folk of Oakham were in the 15th century?

SH:  Hm, a difficult question to answer. I suppose, objectively speaking, we aren’t as superstitious, if superstition is in some way the opposite of scientific fact. We clearly have much more knowledge and understanding of the world now than we did then, and this knowledge is grounded in a scientific framework rather than in religious extrapolation.

But I think the question of wisdom is embedded in your question in some way – where wisdom is characterised by what we do with the things we know. Are we wiser now? Based on what we know about the climate crisis, will we act wisely? Will we respond in a way that will safeguard our futures?

That’s not something I can answer. But I do believe that, while knowledge is something that does increase with human progress, wisdom isn’t. I don’t believe we are wiser now than we were six hundred years ago; we are still capable of incredible folly just as we’re capable of incredible wisdom. So too were people in the Middle Ages.

What will we do with the vast, beautiful, mind-boggling (but not infinite) well of knowledge we have? I just don’t know; I’m sometimes scared and I’m sometimes hopeful, depending on my mood or on what I’ve read or who I’ve spoken to – but, while we know so much more, I don’t believe we are any more or less wise than my people of Oakham.