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In A Shadow Tongue, 'The Wake' Tells Of Bloody Battles And Old Gods

I love the weirdos.

I love the mad ones and the nutjobs. The crazy-pants hucksters with nothing to go on but their words and the paper worlds they construct. I have a lasting respect for those writers who set out to break the language with cause (in support of time or place or voice or characterization) and an almost equal admiration for the harlequin-eyed anarchists who do it just for the dumb, joyous thrill. Even when they fail (and fail and fail and fail...), I love them for the derring-do. For taking the chance when so many simpler paths to literary success (celebrity tell-all, books about dogs, porn) present themselves.

Paul Kingsnorth did not fail. With The Wake, he set out to write a long book about England during and after the Norman invasion of 1066 and to do it in a language that he calls a "shadow tongue" — a kind of invented mish-mash of ancient words re-set in modern syntax, though with odd spellings and very little punctuation. Or capital letters. That's bonkers. But what he created was a book unlike any other, brilliant in its rarity and brutal, ugly truth. With nothing more than words, he has brought to life a drunken, wife-beating, occasionally noble, fanatical, possibly psychotic and completely blood-thirsty hero called "buccmaster of holland," given unto him a guerilla force of farmers-turned-soldiers and let him loose in what is essentially a post-apocalyptic world nearly 1,000 old.

"thu moste see the hafoc tac down the craw he saes and thu will see that all of the world is blud and thy worc is not to lose thine before thy time. be the hafoc not the craw nor the ael for this is how we cum to this land and it is what we is."

Is that too much for you? Trust me, it isn't. You must see the hawk take down the crow, he says, and you will see that all of the world is blood. The language Kingsnorth deploys (mercilessly but smartly, with a tiny little glossary appended which defines the fifty or so most troublesome words) will throw you for a page, maybe two. It will suck you in after that, not allowing you to tumble softly into his world, but pushing you roughly down a steep slope to a hard drop. There will be moments early on when you lose your grip on the words completely. But then you catch yourself. You understand more. You hear the gravel of the voice and see, suddenly, this broken world through other eyes.

There will be moments early on when you lose your grip on the words completely. But then you catch yourself. You understand more. You hear the gravel of the voice and see, suddenly, this broken world through other eyes.

And after that, you're in the fens, my friend, living shoulder to shoulder with buccmaster, gleaning, in bits and pieces, the things that make him tick. He is a free farmer with tenants who work with him on the land. He is successful. Powerful. He hates the priests and the "crist" they have brought to his land. He follows the old gods (kinda). He talks to trees and suffers from visions. When a comet comes, he sees it as the harbinger of death and destruction (there is magic—dark, brooding, lurching magic— present still in buccmaster's world). Though not a smart man or a delicate man, he can see his world changing around him (altered irrevocably by invasion, by man's law and by the "bok of crist") and it terrifies him.

He does what he is built to do. He goes to war against it — against change and all that change brings. When he loses his sons, his wife, his land and his house to the "frenc" army burning and raping its way from the south of England to the North, he takes down his grandfather's rune-etched sword from the wall, gathers together a band of fighters and attempts to murder his way into history. thy worc is not to lose thine before thy time, his grandfather had taught him, and failing in that once, then twice, he makes a new family of his men ("these was my men I was ring gifer i moste cepe them safe and triewe"). He will not join with the other guerillas hiding and fighting in the fens. He is jealous and furious and independent to a fault. He believes only in the bloody will of his old gods and will not listen even when his own men say he goes too far.

"Do thy worc," say the voices that haunt buccmaster (the old gods speaking to him, he thinks). Thy bloody work. Thy vengeful work.

Language defines place, defines time, defines most of all its speaker. And with The Wake, Kingsnorth has brought forth a remarkable narrator through whom we can see (and smell and taste) the burnt fields and bodies, the skeletal trees and smoldering fires — a world sickly similar to so many lesser visions of destruction, but given fresh and horrifying weight here by a mad experiment in language that has become a raw and powerful masterpiece.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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