Kingsnorth’s Wake and Its Predecessors

9781908717863This sounds pretty intriguing: a novel about Anglo-Saxon guerrillas fighting against their Norman conquerors in 11th-Century England, written in a sort of ersatz Old English. Adam Thorpe’s review of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake makes the obvious comparison to the earthy, atavistic voice of the narrator in Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece Riddley Walker. Thorpe’s review makes the protagonist of The Wake sound gratifyingly brutish and unreconstructed, and not nearly as quirkily sympathetic as the 14-year-old Riddley. But based on excerpts there’s quite a similar stylistic feel — Here’s Kingsnorth:

the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time.

And here’s Hoban:

The Bernt Arse pack ben follering jus out of bow shot. When the shout gone up ther ears all prickt up. Ther leader he wer a big black and red spottit dog he come forit a littl like he ben going to make a speach or some thing til 1 or 2 bloaks uppit bow then he slumpt back agen and kep his farness follering us back. I took noatis of that leader tho. He wernt close a nuff for me to see his eyes but I thot his eye bin on me.

Riddley-WalkerIt’ll be interesting to see if Kingsnorth’s novel is as much of a slippery, satisfying, off-kilter epic as Riddley Walker — a near impossibility, given Hoban’s slippery, satisfying, off-kilter genius.

Thorpe also compares The Wake to Alan Garner’s Red Shift, another great novel. Red Shift‘s most effective section (there are three eras of British history covered, with a mysterious connection between them) is Garner’s portrayal of a band of Roman soldiers trying to fight their way out of barbarian Britain. It’s a clear analogue to the Vietnam War, as well as to the UK’s own post-colonial police actions, and a murky, truly claustrophobic bit of work.

And, with reviewer’s prerogative, Thorpe also puts a word in for his own novel Ulverton, like Red Shift an episodic journey through the history of Britain. 1219123Ulverton is a fantastic novel as well (strangely, it’s right next to Riddley Walker on my bookshelves, though I’ve never consciously connected the two), covering three hundred years in the life of a fictional English town, each section written in a style reminiscent of the age. Thorpe takes a concept that could easily become a gimmick or a disjointed stylistic exercise and instead uses it to mount a classic exploration of the nature of social history.

I get the feeling The Wake might make a good Anglo-Saxon double-feature read with Nicola Griffith’s Hild — at some point later this year when my reading isn’t so goal-oriented I’m hoping I’ll get to them both.