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.
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 death ripples 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?
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.
Praise for The Western Wind
“Beautifully rendered, deeply affecting, thoroughly thoughtful and surprisingly prescient . . . 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.”—New York Times Book Review
“Harvey weaves a dazzling tapestry around loss and confession in late-15th-century England in this breathtaking novel… The lush period details and acute psychological insight will thrill fans of literary mysteries and historical fiction. Utterly engrossing.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Harvey evokes the darkness of both winter and spirit with stark yet lovely imagery… This compulsively readable portrait of doubt and faith reveals, in small lives, humanity’s biggest questions.”—Booklist (starred review)
“A dazzling, challenging read.”—Kirkus Reviews
“A medieval whodunnit… less like reading a novel and more akin to time travel — something I’ve only previously encountered in the work of Hilary Mantel.”—Financial Times
“Rich and complex . . . It’s hard not be riveted.”—Observer
“A medieval mystery from one of the UK’s most exquisite stylists.”—Guardian
“Startling and energizing… must be in the running for the year’s best novels.”—The Spectator
“A rich and sumptuous delight… the language manages to be both luminously lyrical and endlessly sharp.”—Telegraph
“A transportive meditation on faith, choice, and community. Harvey’s novel is set in a rural 1491 village in England following priest, John Reve, as he helps his parish grapple with a mysterious death in the holy days leading up to Lent. The dingy village of Oakham immediately grabs and grounds the reader in a tactile sense of place – bitter winds, beating rain, thick mud, stale bread, dim candles, and so much repressed desire. The story unfolds in reverse over four days in a way that feels essential and never a confusing or cheap gimmick. THE WESTERN WIND is one of the best books I’ve read this year; a sumptuous philosophical mystery with style and substance in equal measure. Read it!” —Caleb Masters, Bookmarks (North Carolina)
“My book of the year . . . It is quite unlike anything else I have read . . . Samantha Harvey is not half as well-known as she should be . . . This, her fourth novel, deserves to break her through to a wider audience . . . The truly extraordinary thing about this novel is the way Harvey re-creates the mindset and beliefs of the medieval world, and makes the concerns of 500 years ago vivid and immediate.”—Alice O’Keeffe, The Bookseller
“Set in the 1400s but never feeling dusty or distant, this astonishing book is at once a rollicking mystery and profound meditation on fait and existence.”—Alex Preston, Guardian (Best Fiction for 2018)
“An immersive 15th-century mystery, Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind explores the value and vagaries of faith and the nature of secrets: the ones we confess and the ones we hide even from ourselves. John Reve, spiritual advisor to the residents of the hardscrabble English village of Oakham, relates the story in reverse chronology over four days before Lent. It’s a structure that Harvey uses to good effect in deftly building quiet suspense. Reve’s superior, a rural dean, arrives in Oakham to investigate the drowning of Thomas Newman, a wealthy resident who was both admired and relied on by the community. Though Reve suggests the death was either accident or suicide, the dean is convinced that Newman was murdered, and determines to use what Reve hears in confession to uncover the guilty party. The mystery embedded in the novel reveals itself subtly but effectively. Ultimately, though, what lingers is a deep appreciation for the many contradictions of the human condition, and the awareness that, in that respect, little has changed since medieval times.” —Clara Boza, Malaprop’s Bookstore
“Trumping all the above might be Samantha Harvey, whose relative anonymity should end if her next novel, The Western Wind, does as well as it deserves . . . A murder mystery, an acute dissection of class and money, and fabulously written.”—James Kidd, Post Magazine, South China Morning Post (Must-Read Books in 2018)
“The Western Wind is an extraordinary, wise, wild and beautiful book—a thrilling mystery story and a lyrical enquiry into ideas of certainty and belief. Surprising, richly imagined, gloriously strange—the best kind of fiction.”—Joanna Kavenna, author of A Field Guide to Reality
“Harvey is up there with the best writers working today. Here she makes the medieval world feel as relevant and pressing as tomorrow morning because—as always—she captures the immutable stuff of the human condition.”—Nathan Filer, author of The Shock of the Fall
Select Praise for Dear Thief
Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize
Longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction
“Beautiful . . . Harvey’s book is propelled not by the usual structures of novel writing but by the quality of its author’s mind, by the luminousness of her prose, and by an ardent innocence of speculation that is rare in contemporary fiction. It is a strange and exhilarating journey, unlike anything I have recently encountered . . . I was at moments reminded of Marilynne Robinson . . . Remarkable.”—James Wood, New Yorker
“Dear Thief is a novel of profound beauty. I’ll leave it at that.”—Michael Cunningham
“A glorious, sensuous, grown-up novel, intelligent and passionate.”—Tessa Hadley
“Dear Thief is a hypnotic, beautiful and sometimes dark incantation. . . Samantha Harvey’s novel is a deftly drawn reminder of our deeply human desire for connection and the risk involved in the revelation of that desire.”—A.M. Homes
“An unblinking examination of art and love and death as different emanations of the same truth . . . philosophical, atmospheric, and masterful.”—Nicholas Mancusi, The Daily Beast
“Harvey’s innovations electrify every word . . . [with] an educated and meditative voice, reminiscent of those deployed by great stylists such as WG Sebald, Claire Messud, John Banville and Joseph O’Neill . . . it is so intimate, so honest, so raw. Dear Thief provokes you to think about life, and Life, and your own life, the people in it as well as the ghosts.”—Claire Kilroy, Guardian
“One of the most beguiling novels of the year… Harvey’s language is poetic, in a way that’s brave rather than sentimental, and her intricate observations demand to be dwelled upon. . . [Harvey] is this generation’s Virginia Woolf.”—Gaby Wood, Daily Telegraph
Select Praise for The Wilderness
Winner of the Betty Trask Prize
Shortlisted for the Orange Prize
Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize
“Closer to Virginia Woolf’s meditative novels than anything else I can think of . . . This book is less about the erasure of one man’s life than about the vulnerability of an entire culture.”—Carolyn See, Washington Post
“[A] brave imagining of [Alzheimer’s] . . . Earlier in her life, Samantha Harvey studied philosophy, and that training is felt here . . . Every life is a mystery, Harvey seems to be saying, even to the one whose life it is.”—Sue Halpern, New York Times Book Review
“The Wilderness is Samantha Harvey’s first novel, but it feels like a mature work, as well crafted and as cryptic.”—Bookforum
“A really exciting debut is as rare as it ever was. Samantha Harvey’s first novel is an extraordinary dramatization of a mind in the process of disintegration . . . Brilliant.”—Times (London)
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.
Reading Group Guide
1. Reve’s lyrical observations are a defining feature of his narration. The cup of beer in his confession box offers “the smell of hops and honey like the hilt of a summer afternoon” (p. 22); a Lenten altar cloth has “the deep hue of blackberry juice” (p. 54); alone one night in an empty church, he notes: “a witch-hazel frond fell, and its entirely soundless meeting with the ground added a new depth to the silence” (p. 120). Consider what these and other passages contribute to our understanding of Reve and the novel’s setting. Does life today offer the conditions necessary to achieve such intensity of attention and perception? How does Reve’s way of seeing expand the little church he dwells in daily and bring it into communion with the larger world?
2. How does the book’s structure serve its themes? In an essay entitled “When a Story Is Best Told Backwards” (Literary Hub, November 2018), the author explains that while the reader’s desire to know what happens next is as strong whether a story moves forward or backward, with a backward-in-time structure, the emphasis shifts, so that a reader’s “curiosity is relieved of its task of finding out what the outcome is, and can expend itself instead on how and why it came about.” Does this speak to Reve’s conviction that it’s the intention behind the sin that matters most to God? Would this novel be in some sense a different book on second read?
3. Reve considers that his new confession box helps parishioners by keeping the priest’s face hidden from them, not by concealing their identities from the priest: “I’ve laid the most terrible of burdens at God’s feet because I can’t see him; why else would one so great keep himself invisible?” (p. 52). What do you make of Reve’s theology? Do you think confessing to a local priest (and being known) would offer more comfort than confessing one’s sins to a traveling friar and stranger? How does confession serve the parish? Revisit the paragraphs detailing confession sessions on pages 28, 99, 166, and 201–202. How do they serve to illustrate village life and at the same time connect us to these characters from the past?
4. Reve stresses that he’s primus inter pares (“first among equals”), the chief parishioner, and therefore not separate from the other parishioners. The dean holds a different view and tells Reve: “You’re the parish priest—your word weighs a hundred times a normal man’s, two hundred times a woman’s, three hundred times a child’s” (p. 264). Further, the dean advises Reve: “Where there’s no right or wrong in a situation, you have to supply the answer yourself. This is the meaning of strength and leadership” (p. 227). Does Reve, in fact, do what the dean advises? How well do you think Reve balances the role he sees for himself as fellow parishioner with his role in a position of privilege and authority as priest? When are these roles in conflict?
5. Do you think Reve is an admirable priest who serves his parish well? Why or why not? Consider his virtues as well as his faults and limitations. What would make him a better priest? What called him to the priesthood? What do you think of Reve’s methods of communicating with his parish, including his invention of a treatise on the Lord’s use of the wind, and what he asks Herry Carter to do at the end of the book? Should Reve, as a priest, be as free as an artist to use what tools of invention he may in order to persuade others?
6. When a wind comes from the east rather than the west as he’d prayed for, Reve thinks: “Maybe he hadn’t heard the whole prayer, busy as he was; and maybe I hadn’t asked clearly enough, or maybe I’d been over-clear and asked for too much” (p. 27). What sort of God does Reve believe in? Is he close or remote? Merciful or punishing? Does Reve trust in his faith or does he doubt? Reve tells his parish that God judges not their actions but their intentions. What intentions of Reve’s might come in for God’s judgment? When Reve wonders how long Newman would have had to look at St Christopher’s image to be saved, the dean tells him: “The eyes must have their fill, is all the manual says,” and Reve asks, “But what’s their fill?” (p. 259). Does such instruction seem at odds with the mystery of what’s become of Newman’s soul? Compare this with Reve’s attitude toward Sarah’s pilgrimage to St Katherine’s shrine.
7. Reve cautions his parish against the superstition that leads them to fear creatures like wolf-men, and in the same breath tells them that decaying matter releases malicious spirits into the air, and that a west wind would blow those spirits toward God. Is there a tension between superstition and belief in actions directed by unseen powers? How do you distinguish between religion and superstition? Are the villagers’ superstitions more helpful or harmful to them on the whole? Where have you encountered superstition?
8. Reve despairs that the villagers lack foresight and would rather squander their limited resources on candles than pool them together to invest in church improvement or other projects that would make Oakham more prosperous and help ensure its survival. Is this a familiar mentality today? What are its causes? Is there some virtue in the simplicity of the parishioners’ desires? Reve values Oakham’s kindness, its openness to the outcast and downtrodden, but wonders whether kindness is enough and whether “God favours brightness, a spark, an aliveness that could be turned to cruelty, but which worships him instead” (p. 104). Which characters might be described in terms of this spark?
9. Do you think Reve judges the dean fairly? Reve says of him: “I couldn’t help but notice anew that my companion had the most unlikeable face—I’d tried to like it but it kept ducking clear of my respect” (p. 45). What do you make of Reve’s framing of his dislike in terms of the dean’s own thwarting of his liking? Reve laments that the dean is “too intent on saving us wholly to care for the fate of any one of us singly” (p. 169). How does the tension between concern for the village and concern for individuals affect Reve’s own actions?
10. After Reve learns of Cecily Townshend’s affair and she closes her hands around his, he thinks: “Those lustful hands … A heavy ring on every finger can’t keep a woman to her husband” (p. 172), though he offers no real censure of the man with whom she has the affair. What are Reve’s attitudes toward women and relationships between men and women? Consider Sarah Spenser, his sister and mother, and the unnamed woman from his youth. How do each of them show independence of spirit? How does Reve’s view that God is testing him interfere with his relationships with women? Are Reve’s relationships with men healthier?
11. Reve remarks on the everyday wonder of perspective: “A small thing is a big thing seen from afar, a big thing is a small thing seen up close. The miracle of the changing size of fixed and rigid things” (p. 186). How does the novel give us a sense of Oakham as if seen from afar as well as up close? How do those two Oakhams differ? How does Newman’s exposure to Continental art and ideas shape his perspective? Is perception always a matter of perspective?
12. Though she’s left Oakham by the time the novel begins, we’re given glimpses of Reve’s sister Annie that bring her to life. What sort of person is she? Why does Reve dislike John Endall, the man she marries, so much? The dean points out that Reve speaks of Annie as though she’s dead. Does Reve see a married Annie as another person from the Annie he knew? With Annie gone, she becomes more mysterious to Reve, who wonders how well he really knew her. How would we treat others differently if we kept their essential mystery more in mind?
13. Throughout the book, Reve likens people metaphorically to animals. He sees the dean as “small and neat like a field mouse brushed by panicked dash through wheat and grass”; Ralf Drake as having “the presence of a wolf”; Cecily Townshend and Newman as “a hare and a stag”; and himself as a “roosting” priest. Is this a reduction of the parishioners’ humanity, given that in biblical understanding human beings are above the animals? Do you sometimes see people in terms of their animal-like characteristics? Can animals be seen as part of the world’s terminology that allows us to describe our experience?
14. Newman infers that Reve is “a man of business,” who wants the bridge to bring money into Oakham, rather than a “man of the spirit,” who sees the bridge as an opportunity to venture into the wider world and make new discoveries (p. 223). Is this a fair characterization of Reve? Newman chides him for waiting for the answers to come to him, rather than actively seeking them. And the dean tells Reve that Oakham needs its priest to be strong: “Not some man hiding at his table eating a goose and hoping for the best” (p. 230). Does the echo of the dean’s criticism with Newman’s surprise you? Is Reve as passive as Newman and the dean make him out to be?
15. The action of the book in chronological time ends with Reve’s wearing an animal mask the villagers have put over his head. He’s aware they want him to do something but feels unable to act: “We behave according to the creatures we are, and I had no notion of what creature they’d made me become” (p. 83). Is Reve surrendering responsibility here? Are the villagers to blame for whom he’s become? What do you imagine happens next?
16. Newman recognizes that only a priest can offer the host but wishes that people might also have opportunities to meet God directly, as through the sound of music. Reve thinks “you don’t go upwards through air to find the Lord, trilling like a bluebird; you go down, through the pit if yourself” (p. 177). Do you agree with Reve that Newman’s idea of reaching God is in some way too easy and requires too little of people? Consider the sermon on pages 116 to 118 wherein Reve explains that God asks people to take responsibility for their actions: “How many ways can I tell you this truth: the Lord tests us” (p. 117).
17. At the end of the first day and therefore the end of the story as we encounter it, Reve tells Townshend, “I’d sooner climb up and sacrifice myself before I saw a single of my parish die,” then doubts his own sincerity and decides it doesn’t matter whether he means what he’s said since it won’t happen. How does that affect your judgment of him? When the dean asks Reve to choose a scapegoat—to sacrifice one for the sake of the village—what do you think Reve ought to have done? How much of what happens do you hold Reve responsible for? What is the worst thing he does? How would you judge him by his intentions and also by his actions? Does it soften our judgment of Reve that we’ve been listening throughout the book to his voice? Did you trust him, and do you feel put in an uncomfortable position at the end?
18. When Reve visits Newman’s house after he’s presumed drowned and sees that his pillow is barely dented, he thinks, “I couldn’t abide that a whole life should make such a faint impact” and dents it more deeply himself, then remembers the hurt Newman caused him and smooths the pillow, feeling grief in that gesture as well (“as if my hands had just destroyed the last remnant of him” [p. 268]). Does Reve’s wish for the outer or material world to reflect the inner or spiritual one lead him astray? Is Reve’s belief in his ability to recognize signs from God a danger to himself and others? Does his yearning for a clear sign suggest a weakness in his faith? When he decides to act “on the Lord’s behalf” (p. 287) and be the bearer of a sign, he compares his action to the Miracle Plays (medieval dramas that retold saints’ lives or biblical stories, and glorified God.) Is this a fair comparison?
10. When Reve helps Janet Grant snuff the church’s candles one night and only the tallow she holds is left lit, he thinks: “This hurly-burly world, what was it suddenly but the fennel and goaty staleness of her breath, and a waxy umber that stopped and gave way to giddying dark before it even reached the door” (p. 231). How do darkness and reliance on candlelight add to this novel’s feeling of intensity and intimacy? Though Reve isn’t superstitious, one night he runs in terror to the church, afraid he’s seen a were-creature and imagining other horrors in the darkness. Though darkness was not strange to people in the fifteenth century, do you think it might have helped shape their imaginations? Where does your mind go when you’re in total darkness?
20. Are there aspects of life in fifteenth-century Oakham that appeal to you? What do you make of Shrovetide, with its carnival atmosphere and the license it offers for wildness and subversion of norms before the Lenten time of spiritual discipline? What are some analogous rituals in the secular world today? How do the larger issues portrayed in the novel—such as isolation versus connectedness, the role of the priest, and new ideas challenging old ones—resonate with your experience of the world today? If you had to summarize what the novel is about what would you say? What ideas or philosophies about life does it offer?
Suggestions for Further Reading:
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, Reservoir 13: A Novel by Jon McGregor, Laurus by Eugene Vodolazkin, Knowledge of Angels by Jill Paton Walsh, The Diary of a Country Priest: A Novel by Georges Bernanos, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, Spider by Patrick McGrath, Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O’Nan