The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth (2014) 365 p.

As an Australian my knowledge of the mother country’s history is patchier than I would like. It was only this year, when I moved to Britain and started doing some more reading on the subject, that I discovered the astonishing fact that the Normans were not (as I had vaguely assumed) merely one tribe among many squabbling for turf inside Britain’s borders. Rather, they were an invading French force who successfully defeated the king and installed a new leader, and who were never really turfed out but rather absorbed – even today, British people who have Norman surnames are more likely to be wealthy than those who don’t. It was three centuries before England again had a king who spoke English as his first language. The violent dispossession of land and livelihood by the invading foreigners was one of the most traumatic and consequential events in English history.

Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake, billed as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years ago,” follows a group of resistance fighters in the Lincolnshire fens who have seen everything they know destroyed in the Norman invasion – their homes burned, their wives killed, their freedom shattered. They are led by Buccmaster of Holland (Holland referring to a historical region of Lincoln, not the Netherlands), a crazed and violent son of England who thirsts for revenge.

The most notable feature of The Wake is its language. Kingsnorth says in the afterword:

I simply don’t get on with historical novels written in contemporary language. The way we speak is specific to our time and place. Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes – all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st-century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappucinos: just wrong.

Rather than write the novel in what we now call Old English, the actual language of the day which would unfortunately be “unreadable to anyone except scholars,” Kingsnorth has created what what he calls a “shadow tongue,” which represents the feel and sound of Old English while still being comprehensible to the modern eye:

in the mergen i was waecen by the sound of the wind in the treows and a great wind it was. blowan from a great height blowan with the strength of thunor this wind it mofd the great treows baec and forth and the sound was grim to hiere. i cnawan this was the sign of sum great thing that had been done or was cuman bit i cnawan not what. i cum out of our hus of stoccs and leafs and i seen that the mete we had tied ofer the fyre had cum down in the wind and was all ofer the ground.

The most obvious book this calls to mind is Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel written in a degenerated, phonetic version of English, to represent the warping of the English language two thousand years after a nuclear war. But the invented tongue is becoming a proud tradition: David Mitchell mimics Hoban in the post-apocalyptic segment of Cloud Atlas, parts of Will Self’s novel The Book of Dave feature another verbally debased apocalyptic community, and parts of Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn are written in a half-Scottish half-Cockney patter. (Interesting to note that these are all British authors.) Although strange to behold at first, Kingsnorth’s invented language is easy to come to grips with after a few dozen pages; lack of punctuation and capital letters aside, no more than one word in five is actually altered, and there’s a handy vocabulary at the back for some of the less intuitive words, such as “micel” for much and “fugol” for bird. A basic knowledge of a few Norse words like “fyrd,” “thane,” and “cottar” is also useful, which I handily knew from years of playing King of Dragon Pass like the nerd I am. The language absolutely succeeds in imbuing The Wake with a real sense of alienness; the narrative voice of Buccmaster is gritty and accented and sounds as though he’s telling his story from the other side of a campfire in a deep, dark forest.

And as with Riddley Walker, even beyond the etymological gymnastics, the story itself is excellent. (It’s hard to make this point without making it sound as though the invented language is a gimmick, which it’s not, in the case of both books.) Many a fine historical novel (Sacred Hunger, for instance) stumbles by having characters who conveniently share the sensibilities of a 21st century Guardian reader. Buccmaster of Holland is a wife-beating religious fanatic who never loses an opportunity to remind others that he is, by the eleventh century’s standards, a member of the landed gentry – even after his home has been razed and he’s sleeping rough in the woods with the other plebs. He is arrogant, vain, pigheaded and violent, flies off the handle at the slightest provocation, is prone to bitter jealousy when others speak of more well-known resistance fighters, and is given to dark suspicions and foul moods. As the novel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that he is at the very least a psychopath, and likely suffering from other mental issues as well. He is an unlikeable and unsympathetic narrator, and yet it’s hard not to pity him, because in the wake of the Norman invasion his life truly is a tragedy.

I saw The Wake at Waterstone’s back in summer, but was leery of it because it came from what I mistook for a vanity publisher (it’s not) and because a quick google revealed that while Kingsnorth was a published non-fiction writer, this was his first attempt at fiction. It was only after The Wake was longlisted for the Booker Prize that I picked up a copy. Some might say that’s a shame, that a reader might rely on awards or acclaim to judge worthiness, but I prefer to think of it as heartening – the system ensured that a book this good wasn’t keep in obscurity. (Also, I live in London, so I can’t afford to go around buying new hardbacks unless I’m assured they’ll be good.) The Wake is one of the best novels I’ve read this year, and certainly the most unique.