Ok, let’s get this out of the way straight away: The Wake is written throughout entirely in its own language – a shadow version of Old English which Kingsnorth created to make it intelligible for the modern reader.
“we all is feohtan to lif I seas to this hraga all wihts men and others all is feohtan to lif in this deorc world. And now I moste stric”
Right, that should have put most people off.
Kingwood is of the view that once you get your eye in it’s not a difficult book to read/follow. We’ll get to that in a moment.
The genus of The Wake, began when the author read a book called The English Resistance, documenting the guerrilla resistance movement that sprung up after 1066. According to the author: ” I ran through any number of possible ways of constructing the book. One early approach was an attempt to tell the story of the same period in history from varying perspectives: that of a man involved; that of a nineteenth century historical novel; that of a contemporary historian; and some other perspective I’ve already forgotten. Nicely post-modern, I’m sure you’ll agree. Perhaps I should have stuck with it; it sounds more potentially award-winning.”
Funny, although oddly enough my first thought when I started this book was just how much it was – in this form – award and critic bait. Just describing this book to people makes it sounds as literarily up its own arse as you could wish to get – you almost expect an accompanying soundtrack album from Damon Albarn and Sting played entirely on Recorder and Lute. Of course this is going to be nominated and no doubt win awards. By the same token it will not be read by most people. Indeed, even if it wins the Booker it will be one of those that sits atop many a book shelf unread as readers give up a few pages in.
Should this be the case? Is The Wake a good book?
The answer to the second of these is undoubtedly yes.
There is an argument that great art – be it music, film, art, or literature, shouldn’t be ‘easy’. As arguments go it is, quite frankly, bollocks. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that just because it is not easy it can’t be great. It is all about truth and that old chestnut authenticity (and I don’t here mean that you have to write in old English to be authentic for an 11th century novel) They say in writing fiction you should be true to your characters, and there is no doubt that Kingsnorth firmly believes that this is what he has done here for his lead character, Buccmaster of Holland, and those around him.
And Buccmaster of Holland is a terrific character – whether he would equally have been good without the ‘shadow old English’ – is open for debate, I think he would have been. I think a plain English translation would read perfectly fine.
But, that is not the author’s vision. Instead we get the story of Buccmaster of Holland, a free tenant farmer living his live with wife and two children in the Lincolnshire Fens, at a time when Britain was changed for all time – the invasion by “ingenga” (foreigners) and Duke Guillaume of Normandy and his men. It is a story of patriotism, religion, fear. In fact it read a bit like a Clint Eastwood western in some ways. Burned villages, outlaws, fighting for your home. it’s all here. And very good it is too.
I liked The Wake a lot. I admired its construction and the author’s attempt to convey the fact that this was a different time and place with language. That said he does seem to want to have his cake and eat it too, by trying to use language to add an authenticity whilst at the same time creating a language for the book that has never been spoken and with a set of rules that he admits to freely breaking when it suited his needs.
Most people will not get past this block to reading this. It is all very well (and true) to say that if you give it time, following the basic guide OE ….daeg (day) cg = dg sound as in bricg (bridge) etc you do start to relax into reading it without READING it – a bit like watching a subtitled film where you reach the point when you no longer feel like your reading the words, just immersed in the film. But, and it’s a big but, I think this only works if you read the book quite quickly and not in a pick it up , put it down, over a few weeks kind of way. In that instance you are likely to find yourself trying to ‘learn’ it again each time and never really get inside the book.
In the end I’m glad Kingsnorth wrote it and I think it is an impressive feat which does convey the alien-ness of Old England. However, it also puts up an intentional barrier to a wide audience reading it – in an are you clever enough to read this kind of way, which is a shame. I should add, I am also sure this was not his intention, as a visit to his website – very entertaining ( I like him a lot -read ‘about me’ section) – would attest. Indeed, the fact that it was crowd funded lends weight to the argument that he didn’t really expect many people to want to read it, he just needed to write it.
Set aside some time, remove all distractions, pour yourself a glass or several of something nice and struggle through those first pages . Hang on in there, it is worth it in the end. Or, just decide that life is too short to have to work on something that is meant to be the relaxing/enjoyment part of your life and maybe go for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler instead as your entry point into Booker 2014