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The western wind
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Dust and ashes though I am, I sleep the sleep of angels. Most nights nothing wakes me, not til I'm ready. But my sleep was ragged that night and pierced in the morning by someone calling to me in fear. A voice hissing, urgent, through the grille, "Father, are you in there?" "Carter?" Even in a grog, I knew this voice well. "What's the matter?" "A drowned man in the river. Down at West Fields. I--I was down at the river to see about clearing a tree that's fallen across it. A man there in the water, pushed up against the tree like a rag, Father." "Is he dead?" "Dead as anything I've ever seen." I'd slept that night on the low stool of the confession booth with my cheek against the oak. A troubled night's sleep, very far from the angels. Now I stood and pushed my skirts as flat as they'd go. Outside looked dark; it could have been any time of night or early morning, and my hands and feet were rigid with cold. Excerpted from The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
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  New York Times Review

IN THE CLASSROOM, I sometimes find myself talking to my students about the differences between "reading for pleasure" and "reading like a writer." For decades, I tell them, I've been unable to read any piece of fiction truly for pleasure. But lately I find myself struggling not just with my inability to not read like a writer, but now also to not read like the liberal American writer that I am. I say all this because it is through a very particular lens - liberal, American, not to mention atheistic - that I read and utterly enjoyed Samantha Harvey's latest novel, "The Western Wind." Harvey is an English author, and "The Western Wind" is concerned (among other things) with man's relationship to God. I can't speak to Harvey's religious or political leanings, nor do I need or want to. But I have plenty to say about her beautifully rendered, deeply affecting, thoroughly thoughtful and surprisingly prescient fourth book, which takes place during the four holy days leading up to Ash Wednesday. Set in the village of Oakham in 1491, the story is narrated by the local priest, John Reve. If other places in England at the time felt more fully emerged from the Middle Ages (commonly agreed to have ended in 1485 with the crowning of Henry Tudor), the village of Oakham is, at best, still a few years behind the promised enlightenment of the Renaissance. (We are treated to vivid time-transporting descriptions of everything from cooking and eating a whole goose to celebrating a damp wedding in a barn to fornicating while unwashed in a forest with a mule for a witness.) The narrative begins with the news that the village's wealthiest man, Thomas Newman, has drowned in the river. The means of his death - suicide, murder, accident - are unknown, and this mystery adds to the uneasiness of the villagers as they prepare "to go indoors and put out their fires and grit their teeth for 40 days of Lent." In so many ways, this summary might suggest that this is a novel whose contents and relevance to our world are next to nonexistent. On the contrary, this medieval whodunit miraculously captures the otherworldly, fishout-of-water, discombobulating experience of being a liberal American today. Let me explain. Adding to the general fear and mistrust is the arrival of the suspicious regional dean, who travels to Oakham to "investigate" Newman's death and to help urge a confession. (For those unfamiliar, a dean is typically ranked above a priest and below an archdeacon, but in Harvey's story, "We've no bishop, no archdeacon, not for now, and he finds himself, bewilderingly, at the top of the heap.") The dean plays the part of detective, nemesis and unwanted supervisor, and his presence riles the townspeople and unsettles the priest. It is this very dynamic - allpowerful know-it-all vs. frustrated citizenry - that feels unfortunately - and dare I say deliberately - most familiar to this reader. The dean takes up residence in the dead man's house and from there, "he watched us.... He said he'd protect us all. But he's a weak man, and weak men go for easy power; he saw a flock in grief and turmoil, and decided to prod it into the pen. Maybe he liked the sport of it, of catching us offguard, and suddenly there he was gently, solicitously proffering notions of murder so that he could find and hang the murderer, thus fulfilling the cycle of sin and recompense that gives order to this cryptic world and would show him to be in control of his parishes. He feared the ship would sink. I don't blame him for that; it's the fear of anybody who's found himself, mistakenly, at the helm. At several helms at once, and he not a captain. I dare to add, not even a sailor." The four holy days that account for the time span of "The Western Wind" - which are recounted in reverse order - feel nothing short of unholy to both the reader and the narrator, John Reve. As Shrove Tuesday comes to an end, with Newman already four days dead and the story only just getting started, the priest exits his church, around which the whole village has formed a ring, their yearly custom. Drunk and in masks made of animal skin and with husbands dressed as wives, the villagers swarm the priest: "A shifting shape running toward me with a large head of a pig.... My shoulders were clasped, my head gripped by blind fingers and a mask placed over it whose weight jarred my head forward. I knew it was a mask by its stench of animal-gut and mud and the slenderest sweetness of grass - the pig's head, the hare, a unicorn, an owl It was heavy enough to be the head of a real bear.... Blind inside my own disguise, baffled and frantic. They were chanting my name as if they wanted me to do something, but I couldn't act - we behave according to the creatures we are, and I had no notion of what creature they'd made me become." Harvey's is a story of suspense, yes. It is a story of a community crowded with shadows and secrets. But to read this novel is to experience a kind of catharsis. In John Reve, a 15th-century priest at war with his instincts and inclinations and at times even with his own flock, we find a kind of Everyman, and Harvey delivers a singular character at once completely unfamiliar and wholly universal. We tire treated to vivid, time-transporting descriptions of life in 1491. HANNAH pittard'S most recent novel, "Visible Empire," was published in June.

  Publishers Weekly Review

Harvey (Dear Thief) weaves a dazzling tapestry around loss and confession in late-15th-century England in this breathtaking novel. Thomas Newman, benevolent landlord and relative newcomer to the hamlet of Oakham, disappeared into the river on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday. Parish priest John Reve recounts the icy unnamed rural dean's condescending investigation into the death across four days in reverse order, beginning on Shrove Tuesday, the day Newman's shirt is found near the river. The dean urges Reve to report any information gleaned from the parish's pre-Lent confessions to determine if Newman was killed, slipped, or committed suicide. During his investigation, Reve hears about the mundane mistakes, distressing habits, and intentionally aggressive mutterings from a number of possible suspects. There's Lord Townshend, the landowner who has reluctantly sold holdings to Newman to pursue his quixotic cheese-making endeavors; Herry Carter, who thought of Newman as a father but is behaving as if he needs to atone; Sarah Spenser, who keeps confessing to the murder but may be seeking the relief of death from her wasting disease; and other shady types with suspicious reactions. Amid his attempts to deflect the dean's intrusions and comfort his flock, Reve mourns his sister's recent departure and recalls Newman's friendly jabs against priestly intercession in favor of personal piety. Harvey's final chapter unspools the truth of Newman's death and Reve's own surprising secrets. The lush period details and acute psychological insight will thrill fans of literary mysteries and historical fiction. This is an utterly engrossing novel. Agent: Jim Rutman, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Nov.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
An extraordinary new novel by Samantha Harvey--whose books have been nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), and the Guardian First Book Award-- The Western Wind is a riveting story of faith, guilt, and the freedom of confession.<br> <br> It's 1491. In the small village of Oakham, its wealthiest and most industrious resident, Tom Newman, is swept away by the river during the early hours of Shrove Saturday. Was it murder, suicide, or an accident? Narrated from the perspective of local priest John Reve--patient shepherd to his wayward flock--a shadowy portrait of the community comes to light through its residents' tortured revelations. As some of their darkest secrets are revealed, the intrigue of the unexplained deathripples through the congregation. But will Reve, a man with secrets of his own, discover what happened to Newman? And what will happen if he can't?<br> <br> Written with timeless eloquence, steeped in the spiritual traditions of the Middle Ages, and brimming with propulsive suspense, The Western Wind finds Samantha Harvey at the pinnacle of her outstanding novelistic power.
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