In 15th-century Oakham, England, Thomas Newman, the village’s greatest landowner and de facto leader, speaks to local priest John Reve about God.
Newman has been playing the lute and argues that he hears God in its melody. “A man or woman can’t stride up here and take the host for themselves. But they can hear music for themselves, it pours direct into their ears.”
Reve, who narrates Samantha Harvey’s fourth novel “The Western Wind,” responds, “It pours direct into an ear and might mean nothing. Or worse than nothing. It might be the devil himself pouring in.”
In a world lit by fire and rarely by new ideas, people obey Reve, offering up tidy indulgences when their crops go bad, among other misfortunes, believing that their parish priest can intercede on their behalf.
They seem to forget that Reve can’t even change his own luck. He lives in the same poverty as his flock and, as the novel opens, hasn’t come to terms with his sister’s recent departure after her wedding. While we modern readers will recognize an unreliable narrator when we see one, Harvey manages to make Reve simultaneously unstable, intelligent, compassionate, selfish, astute and bumbling. It’s a compelling combination, especially since we learn early on that Thomas Newman is dead, found floating in the nearby river.
Another writer might have focused simply on this mystery, perfectly sound material as it is. Harvey, however, wants to dig deeper in her version of “Life in a Medieval Village”: its monotony, in a bored priest’s recounting of confessions; its superstitions, including the Lenten draping of a Christ figure with a shawl to keep him warm; its amusements, such as the not-so-private lovemaking.
And its threats — from the death of the smart, dynamic Newman to the slow, sure encroachment of a monastic order that seeks to raze Oakham to make way for a new abbey. That titular wind is supposed to be the softest one, bringing spring on Zephyrus’s wings. But the early spring of Tom Newman’s death, recounted backward from Day 4, when his body is found, to Day 1, gives little comfort to the inhabitants of Oakham. Everyone is cold, wrapping themselves in meager shawls, the chill air slapping their flesh.
As Reve recounts those days, he is forced to admit many of his own failings, which are underscored by the visiting parish dean’s waspish manner and harsh words. The dean would have John Reve prove that his church is powerful enough to secure protection from the pope — thus saving it from the monks. Meanwhile, some of the villagers have their own hopes about securing enough funds to build a bridge that would allow them to organize a prosperous dairy. By the time we find out how Tom Newman died, we’re less interested in a mystery solved and more intrigued by the fate of a long-gone place, a place that Harvey brings to life from its historical tomb.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Samantha Harvey
Grove. 304 pp. $26.