It’s the beginning of Lent in the isolated Somerset village of Oakham, some time in the late fifteenth century. As the villagers prepare for their forty days of penance, a dead man is seen in the river. By the time rescuers come to help, the body has been swept away, but a fragment of clothing confirms its identity: Tom Newman, a prosperous, curious dreamer, and one of the few villagers to have ventured beyond the parish boundaries. The rains have been falling heavily and the riverbanks are thick with mud. He could have slipped in. But the question remains: was it misadventure or murder? As the small community huddles under bleak skies and heavy rains, the priest John Reve struggles to comprehend the mystery, dogged by the interference of the visiting dean, weighed down by the confessions of his parishioners, and troubled by the way that Newman’s death threatens to pull apart a whole network of secrets, doubts and obligations that bolster Oakham against the outside world.
This is a strange book: it is remarkably introspective for a mystery and, if it were a film, it’d be an arthouse piece with jagged editing and sudden, almost silent scenes of confrontation between Reve and the unnamed dean. Unfolding in reverse chronology, the story gradually allows us to understand more about Oakham and the complex place that Newman holds in the village hierarchy. But, for me, the potentially sinister death didn’t seem to be what the story was really about. The more I read, the more I felt that I was reading some kind of allegory or mystery play. The way that Oakham is isolated from the world gives it a claustrophobic, simmering kind of tension and there seems to be something almost supernatural about the way that the dean can find his way in, but no one can find their way out. Is there something in the dean’s early observation (which I supposed to be metaphorical): “Do you know purgatory has a waiting room? They call it Oakham, there are so many of you there.” Is this a story which is actually trying to say something more complicated about the human condition?
Certainly, this is a story about redemption, conscience and sacrifice: themes at the very core of the church which the priest and the dean represent, and which underpin the liturgical season of Lent. Throughout the story, we see various characters trying to make amends for sin or doubt or failure, whether that’s through the ritual comforts of confession, giving money to the church, or shielding each others’ secrets. Reve, at the spiritual and social centre of the village, finds himself the custodian of an anxious community under threat, which clutches at potents and symbols in an effort to understand its world. It’s a time of uncertainty not only due to Newman’s death, but also thanks to the acquisitive interest of a local monastery, snapping at Oakham’s borders and itching to incorporate it into its estates.
Initially, at least, the dean is a rather unsettling counterpart to Reve, appearing almost out of thin air and asking troubling questions, driving Reve to self-examination. I’d wondered at times whether he was supposed to be some kind of demonic interlocutor – but, as the novel progresses and our perspective shifts, he becomes increasingly reasonable. Might we also see Newman as a kind of Christ-figure – a man who has sacrificed so much of his wealth to help his neighbours and protect Oakham’s independence; a man whose original perspectives lead to awkward views on authority; someone who poses questions about new ways that Man can interact with God without the intermediary of a priest?
It’s a book that has ambitions, that’s clear. And it creates a wonderfully vivid – if awfully bleak – world of damp and rain and hard graft and grim, persistent struggle in the face of the elements. I found its atmosphere more successful than its narrative structure. There are many things I still don’t understand. A reverse chronology is a clever concept, but it only really works if we’re uncovering things that the characters, in retrospect, do seem to have known. Slight spoilers may follow, so tread carefully. The main thing is that, when we finish the book, we see that the priest does have a clearer idea about Newman’s death than he has hitherto admitted. And yet, if we go back to the beginning of the novel again, he and Carter – although they’re entirely alone in the middle of the night – carry out a complete act of genuine surprise and alarm which seems thoroughly unlikely given what we now know. It’s as if the author changed her mind as she went, regarding what her characters knew or had done, which works if you read the book a single time, but doesn’t work if you then go back over it and try to see how the ‘truth’ was hiding in plain sight all along. I enjoy books which suddenly reveal that something isn’t quite what you’ve assumed – Gentlemen and Players is an excellent recent example of that – but it doesn’t quite work here.
I’d be very interested to know what others think. If you’ve read this, what did you feel about the way the story was gradually revealed? Did you think it worked? Did you get the same niggling feeling that the author was trying to explore something beyond the mere tale of a ‘murder’ investigation? John Reve is obviously an unreliable narrator, but is he a plausible one? It’s a very odd kettle of fish and, even though I read it some days ago, I’m still trying to figure it out. What, I wonder, have I missed?
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review