Samantha Harvey describes her fourth novel, tongue firmly planted in cheek, as a “medieval murder mystery” when we meet for tea in a café in Piccadilly. On one level it is; The Western Wind (Cape, March) opens early in the morning of Shrove Tuesday, 17th February, 1491, when priest John Reve is woken roughly with the news that the body of a drowned man has been sighted in the large river that runs by the tiny village of Oakham. Whether his death is murder, suicide or an accident will have profound implications for the sleepy Somerset village because the victim is Tom Newman, the wealthiest man in Oakham.
But admirers of Harvey’s earlier novels will know that she is a distinctive and bold literary writer who is interested in exploring philosophical ideas, so a straightforward medieval whodunit would be rather unlikely. Her astonishing 2009 début The Wilderness, in which the male narrator slowly descended into Alzheimer’s, was praised by the Times as “an extraordinary dramatisation of a mind in the process of disintegration” and was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Guardian First Novel Award.
Her follow-up All is Song was, on one level, a study of the relationship between two middle-aged brothers, but also, in one brother, an imagining of how Socrates might live if he were alive today, constantly probing and questioning those around him. Her most recent novel, Dear Thief, took the form of a long letter from a middle-aged woman to her estranged childhood friend, who stole the narrator’s husband. The New Yorker said: “Beautiful... a novel with no interest in conformity. Harvey’s book is propelled not by the usual structures of novel writing but by the quality of its author’s mind.”
“I try to do something formally different with each novel,” explains Harvey, “and my formal experiment with this novel was plot.” Hence the intriguing structure of The Western Wind. Narrated by Reve, it is set over four days of Shrovetide before the beginning of Lent, but is told backwards beginning with Day 4, Shrove Tuesday, and ending with Day 1, Saturday. As Reve recounts the events of those four days the novel takes the form of his confession, as well as the confessions he hears from his villagers.
“Although I wanted to play around with plot, I am and will always be a writer who is much more interested in character,” says Harvey, who explains she always wanted the plot and the structure to be in service to the character and not the other way around. “Somehow telling [the story] backwards meant I could create a narrator who was always keeping something from you [the reader], always trying to justify his own actions by slightly deceptive means. That seemed to be a way of articulating something about his character that I just couldn’t pull off by telling it in a ‘forward’ narrative. Everything he tells you, you later find out is not quite right.”
Harvey has long been fascinated by the idea of confession (“I don’t know why; I’m not Catholic or religious”) and wanted to write about it. “We don’t really have confession any more as a widespread practice, but we do have therapy and we probably have more therapy now than we’ve ever had. I’m sure there’s a correlation between the two.” It is a basic human urge, she thinks, “the urge of the soul to unburden itself, and not just to unburden itself, but to be forgiven by something or someone.”
It was the desire to explore the idea of confession which led her, unexpectedly, back in time. “I never meant to write a historical novel,” she says, explaining that when she started to look at what form the book could take, she realised it would need to be set “in a time when confession was the norm, so that took me back some centuries. Then I wanted it to be pre-Reformation because everything gets much more complicated after that. So I landed in the late 1400s, and I had never meant to. I couldn’t even write one sentence of it. I had no idea what people did, what they wore, what they sat on.”
One of the most extraordinary things about the novel is the way Harvey re-creates the mindset and beliefs of the late medieval world, and yet makes them so vivid and immediate. John Reve speaks in modern English: “I didn’t want to try and write it in any form of Middle English,” says Harvey, “partly because it would have meant an enormous amount of research but also because it would have made it read like a ‘historical’ novel. I didn’t want that because the characters in the novel aren’t living in history, they are living in their own present day. I wanted it to feel like we were in their present.”
The present for John Reve and his flock is 1491, when the world was on the cusp of unimaginable change. The Renaissance had begun in Florence but had not reached a sleepy village in Somerset, and the following year Christopher Columbus would “discover” America. It would be only 26 short years before Martin Luther would challenge the authority of the Pope and thus the whole Catholic Church. “I wanted to try and capture that moment before everything changed,” says Harvey. “I’m always interested in how we experience change, even when we don’t quite know it’s coming - the subsonic experience of it.”
John Reve is a good man but there is a sense that he is under siege from all sides. The dean (his religious superior) believes Newman was murdered and therefore that his murderer must be lured to confession, telling Reve: “A priest is also a judge and a sheriff, whether or not he wants to be.” Reve’s relationship with Newman before his death saw the priest questioning his place in the world. Harvey says: “Can you imagine what it would be like if someone were to come along and say ‘actually, I can just speak to God myself - I don’t need you - I’m just as favoured by God as you are’? The whole meaning of your existence, and the thing that safeguards you and gives you authority, the thing that makes you important to people and needed by people has gone. There’s nothing more threatening to an existence than that. So that was what, in my mind, was always behind his motives - this desire to do good, and protect his village and his people, but also a desire to protect himself.”
From the very beginning of her writing career Harvey has been published by Dan Franklin at Jonathan Cape, arguably the most literary imprint in modern British publishing, but I wonder if she has ever felt the slightest pressure to make her books more marketable?
“I think you can’t pre-empt what will be commercial,” she says. “And I could only ever write what I wanted to write. I accept I will probably never be a wealthy writer but Cape is very loyal - it sticks with you and tries to see you through your career, rather than see you through one book. So my aim is to keep writing what I love so that I have a body of work that I can say, ‘Well it was what I wanted to write and it came from my heart’. That’s all I can do. I’m very lucky to have a publisher that lets me do that.”