The Harrowing: James Aitcheson

★★★

Set in the dark days after the Norman invasion, this novel takes us behind the martial glamour of the shield wall and the sword song and gives us a glimpse of the experiences of ordinary people in a newly uncertain world. As the new king Wilelm secures the south, bribing and terrifying local thegns into submission, those loyal to the aetheling Eadgar retreat north. As English forces make a stand at Eoforwic, Wilelm sends an army to meet them, burning, killing and destroying as it goes. In this land of blood and fire, no one is safe and a  motley band of travellers find themselves drawn together on the road as they flee, partly from the Normans, but also from their own dark pasts.

When fifteen-year-old Tova is woken in the night by her mistress Merewyn, she gathers her few possessions and follows her loyally away from their hall into the open country. It is winter and there’s talk of Norman soldiers roaming the countryside, but Tova’s place is at her mistress’s side, no matter what she’s done. And Tova isn’t exactly sure what that is, although Merewyn is terrified that they’ll be followed, and there are spots of blood on her dress. Young and unused to hard conditions, they are easy prey but, when they are rescued from a band of Norman soldiers, they believe they may have found a protector in the English warrior Beorn. Fierce and taciturn, he is riding north to Hagustaldesham, where rumour has it that the aetheling’s forces are regrouping for another strike against the invaders, and the women ride with him, as there is nowhere else to go.

As they travel, they find themselves passing through a land that has been laid waste, where halls have been burned, crops trampled and men, women and children destroyed for no other reason than the vindictiveness of the Norman king. Some see this as proof that the last days are at hand, when the world is harrowed by monstrous forces in preparation for the Last Judgement. More prosaically, it means that the little group of travellers is never truly safe, for they might come across a marauding band of Normans at any turn, and there is always smoke and the stench of death on the horizon. Yet it is better to be in company than to be alone, and in this way they add two more members to their little company. First comes Guthred, the priest, weighed down by guilt, who hopes to atone by carrying a valuable manuscript to sanctuary on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarena. And then there’s Oslac, the arrogant travelling bard, who sees even in this mindless slaughter the material for songs and sagas.

Brought together by chance and fate, these five travellers make their wavering way north in the hope of safety. Surrounded by danger at every step, they begin to share their stories at night, as a form of confession over the fires. One by one, they take up the thread of the tale and, as they speak, it transpires that everyone has their sins, their shame and their secret. As the Normans harrow the countryside around them, they harrow their own souls. But can confession truly bring peace? Or is it likely that, in this world where friend and foe aren’t always clearly distinct, and where English outlaws are as thirsty for blood as the Normans, that some of these confessions will lead the little group into even greater danger?

This is the first book I’ve read by James Aitcheson, although he’s already written three books in the Conquest series about the aftermath of Norman invasion in 1066. I’m not sure whether The Harrowing is supposed to follow on from these earlier novels or whether it’s the beginning of a new series, but the characters and situations feel new and fresh and I didn’t feel that I was missing out by not having read the Conquest books. The concept, with a group of travellers baring their souls, reminded me (of course) of The Canterbury Tales but also, very strongly, of Karen Maitland’s excellent Company of LiarsAnd perhaps it was unhelpful to have this comparison in mind, because I felt that Maitland’s novel succeeded slightly better than The Harrowing did.

Where The Harrowing fell down slightly for me was that I didn’t really feel deeply engaged with the characters’ stories. I could see that logically each of the tales had some bearing on the wider situation, but I was never drawn in as powerfully as I wanted to be. Nor did I feel that the narrative arc was entirely satisfactory: if we imagine the plot of a book as a bell curve, then I didn’t feel that the conclusion of this book really completed the downward sweep to the moment of catharsis. I suspect, in fact, that this is the first part of a new trilogy or series and it feels that way: although it can be read as a standalone novel, it feels like a scene-setting piece which provides information and motives that might be built on in a later book. And, although things very definitely do happen in this book – death, betrayal, chases, all the grist to the dramatic mill – they oddly enough don’t make much of an impression and, when you reach the final pages, there’s a faint sense of deflation. Oh. Are we here already? I find it hard to explain, but the book never quite managed to grab me by the throat.

Nevertheless, if you enjoy early medieval historical fiction you should bear this in mind. It gives a valuable balance to the usual tales of front-line heroics and court intrigue, and Aitcheson creates a suffocating sense of uncertainty and fear. It’s perfectly well-written. But, for me, it just lacks that little alchemical something that would turn the story into glittering gold.

Aitcheson has a lot of fans and many reviews of this book on Goodreads and Amazon have bubbled over with five stars and enthusiasm. Personally I really don’t feel that it quite reaches that standard, but of course every reading experience is subjective. It does seem to be the case, though, that his Conquest series is universally thought to be brilliant and so I’m tempted to take a look at those books at some point, and to find out a little more about this unstable and convulsive period in our history.

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I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review

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