52 Good Books

Book Review 51 – The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

It’s a great feeling when you take a punt on an author or a book that you’ve never heard of before and it pays off. That is exactly what happened when I put in a request on Netgalley for The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. I received a free advanced reader copy of the book (due to be published in November 2018) from Grove Press in return for an honest review.

Despite the fact that Harvey has been nominated for the Man Booker and the Women’s Prize for fiction, I was unfamiliar with her, but the description of this story caught my attention. John Reve is the priest in the small village of Oakham in 1491. John has a problem. One of the most prominent of his parishioners, Tom Newman has just drowned in the turbulent river that cuts Oakham off from the rest of the country. His boss, the Dean, suspects foul play and wants a name to pin the blame on. It is down to John and his confessional booth in the church to discover what really happened. Parishioner after parishioner comes to John’s booth spilling their secrets. Does Oakham have the answers John needs?

This story is told backwards. We start out three days after Tom’s death and end up on the day that it happened. By the end all the pieces have fallen into place and we know exactly why Tom is dead. It is a neat, satisfactory ending and one that I believe would appeal to all sorts of readers. Don’t be fooled by the medieval setting. The storyline is just as relevant today and the fact that it is 1491 doesn’t get in the way of the story, in fact I would say it is barely relevant. This entire storyline could unfold in 2018 more or less exactly as it has in 1491.

The Western Wind is also beautifully written. Harvey has a real knack for a whimsical turn of phrase wedged into a dramatic storyline. She has a skill for capturing the ordinary, childish things that we do when no-one is looking with aching tenderness. Take John’s description of entering the dead man’s house and seeing his bed. He couldn’t bear to think that he had left such a small imprint on the word as the tiny dent in the pillow, so he presses down on it to make it bigger. Then, remembering how Tom had mocked him recently he flattens out the dent and instantly feels guilty for erasing what was left of him. It’s something and nothing, this little piece of action, but it beautifully sums up what it is to be human. Our procrastinations, our hopelessness, our ego’s. It is also a stunning example of why anyone and everyone should read this book.

Next week marks the final book of the challenge (though perhaps not the final book on this website – more on that next week) and so I have decided to indulge myself and read some Harry Potter! I have two illustrated copies of books two and three that are as yet unread. Come and join me on Monday for book(s) number 52 where I pore over my Harry Potter obsession and tell you all about how I read a book a week for a year.

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