The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

‘Thank you, Lord, some said under their breaths.  Thank you, Thomas Newman, said others.’

In 1491, during the early hours of Shrove Tuesday, near the small and isolated village of Oakham in Somerset, the body of a man seen in the river.  By the time rescuers arrive, the body has been swept away and only a fragment of a shirt remains.  The fragment is enough to identify the owner: his name was Thomas Newman, the most prosperous and industrious man in the village.  It has been raining heavily, the riverbanks are slippery, he could have slipped. Was Thomas Newman’s death an accident, was it murder or could it have been suicide?

Our narrator is the village priest, John Reve.  He has secrets of his own, and it’s difficult to judge just how reliable a narrator he is.  How can we judge who knew what and when?  Does it matter? We start on Day 4 (Tuesday 17th February 1491) and work back to Day 1 (Saturday 14th February 1491). A story is gradually revealed, complicated by this reverse chronology.

Thomas Newman occupies a curious place in this novel.  His death provides a starting point, his life seems to have been important in protecting Oakham from forces external to the village.  How can one man be so significant?  Why do some villagers seem so convinced that they are responsible for his death? What was the role of Thomas Newman in this village, of John Reve, of the visiting dean?

And what of the confessions, the small transgressions and the larger sins?  John Reve prays for a western wind to blow away evil spirits:

‘The strongest west wind, to blow away the locusts.’

He worries that the prevailing eastern winds will bring more problems to Oakham.  There’s a nearby monastery in search of Oakham’s land.  Could Thomas Newman have prevented this?

The visiting dean, who occupies Thomas Newman’s house, is keen to have someone confess to killing Thomas Newman.  It is John Reve who listens to the confessions and tries to make sense of what is said.  The community is unsettled and feels threatened.  The villagers are trying to make sense of their claustrophobic, bleak world by looking for symbols and portents in what is happening.

I kept reading.  The more I read, the less certain I became of what I thought I understood.   And yet, I am not dissatisfied.  Perceptions become reality, confessions have their own versions of truth.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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