THE WESTERN WIND
By Samantha Harvey
Grove Press, $26, 304 pages
In my mind, the setting of Samantha Harvey’s fourth novel, “The Western Wind” — the village of Oakham, 1491 — is rendered entirely in cinematic muted blues and grays. It is like those films of limited color, in which inescapability becomes the very palette of the universe.
I suspect I am drawing from the incredible 2017 film “First Reformed,” as both are winter cold, feature priests lost in despair, and paint portraits of them with treacherous degrees of intimacy. Samantha Harvey herself described “The Western Wind” as a “medieval murder mystery.” It’s true that the plot appears to wind its way around an unexplained death. But it is, like great films, built of much smaller moments, colors, smells and sounds. It is a novel with an atmosphere that demands to be experienced.
“The Western Wind” begins four days after the death of Tom Newman, Oakham’s richest resident and primary landowner. John Reve, the local priest and our narrator, has been tasked with discovering the murderer of Newman, aided by the offer of a generous pardon for any who comes to confession. And so, the locals come to confess. They do so in England’s first and only confession box, an innovation that clearly separates Reve from those to whom he offers penance.
They confess the mundane and diverting sins of their lives: Oversleeping, spitting, seeing buttocks in the clouds, putting their shoes on the wrong feet. At one point, Reve reads in the face of his superior, a dean come to investigate the death, what appears to be his own judgment of his flock: “How do you reason with people who have the intellect of children?”
As we move backward in time toward the day of Newman’s death, we gain a clearer picture of Oakham through an increasingly dirty window. Details show us daily life in a medieval town, rich in ritual and suffering. However, Reve’s conceitedness and his terror in the face of his own insignificance mark his narration as unreliable. By the end of the story, it is revealed what happened to Newman. But more importantly, John Reve himself is revealed.
This is not the story of an evil man. Reve is full of compassion. He is kind to two tormented individuals who each confess repeatedly to the murder of Newman, though Reve assures them that they did not murder him. He cannot forgive them, because he cannot forgive what did not happen. But he is surely kind. Reve is self-important, asking for miracles, but does that mean he has delusions of grandeur? Perhaps not. In line with the dominant view of his day, he sees himself as the sole path to salvation, and he wants salvation for those of his town. He believes he is the only gatekeeper to God.
Newman, on the other hand, took a more personal view of God, finding spiritual connection in music. He believed that this individual fulfillment could be found by any man who went seeking. Reve is threatened and becomes patronizing out of fear. He has many sins greater than oversleeping and spitting, but his loathing dressed as love is, perhaps, the sin for which he most needs to atone. Sins are punished according to intent, and the reader will wonder how much Reve is responsible for himself, and how much he is, like those of the village he looks down on, simply a child with whom one cannot reason.
But why tell this story backward? And why a mystery? Ms. Harvey is known for her inventive plot structures. Her earlier books are likewise games of form. “The Wilderness,” her debut novel, featured a narrator slowly being lost to Alzheimer’s. Her third novel, “Dear Thief,” was told in the form of a letter. To tell a story backward is another experiment for Ms. Harvey. She is, in a word, a stylist. But style without heart leaves a reader cold. Like her prior books, this experiment is not a circus trick, or a flaunting of skill. It is told backward for a reason motivated by the substance of the story itself.
After speaking to a man about a somewhat miraculous occurrence, Reve notes that, “Miracles are precise. The Lord can reverse one portion of time and leave the rest of time as it is.” He also mentions the miracle of distance: “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.” A death is a fixed and rigid thing, in time. It becomes bigger or smaller depending on your distance from it. Ms. Harvey’s story plays games with time, because it plays with intentions and forgiveness. For those who read closely, Ms. Harvey has a small miracle up her sleeve.
• Tara Wilson Redd is the author of “The Museum of Us” (Wendy Lamb Books, 2018).
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