The Western Wind

Written by Samantha Harvey
Review by Douglas Kemp

England in February 1491. John Reve is the priest in the small, benighted village of Oakham, in Somerset. He is told by the rural dean to investigate the circumstances in the death of the major village landholder Thomas Newham. The dean believes it was murder, while Reve thinks it was just an unfortunate accident in falling into the rain-swollen river. John Reve has to deal with a range of bizarre superstition and ignorance amongst his flock. The village is so isolated and neglected that it is almost a pastiche of medieval attitudes in which the population seeks answers to their daily struggles via celestial intervention. A significant element of the story takes place in the confessional, where Reve tries to make sense of villagers’ worries and sins. The death of Newham threatens to unravel the stability of the village, inviting in outsiders to meddle and mess everything up.

It is an intelligent and literate story – seeped in the pre-Reformation prejudices and poverty of rural England, where it was a major struggle just to survive a wet and chilly winter.

The novel has a reverse chronology structure, which may be a merry little project for a creative writing course, but which creates some difficulties for the reader. I found the effect rather irritating and constantly had to think back to what I already knew and adjust this knowledge when reading the narrative and making sense of it backwards. It allows the writer to expand upon the story and provide details that the reader had not initially seen or been aware of, but I could have done without the constant mental acrobatics.