Paul Kingsnorth: The Wake

Click here to read my review in the Sunday Times of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which is the first crowdfunded novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It is, in addition, written in a ‘shadow tongue’ which mixes Old English with variant spellings of modern words, though that might not make it unique in Booker history – David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas had one section (‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’) which had a similar linguistic approach. Have there been any others?

Paul Kingsnorth: The Wake



  1. I found your review useful: it probably reflects badly on me, but I’m not keen on those novels that are written in a pseudo-authentic approximation of ‘old’ English – although Golding perhaps just about gets away with it in The Inheritors. I’ve not read ‘Riddley Walker’, which is perhaps in a different category: an invented ‘future’ language, so therefore more imaginatively justified. H. Mantel didn’t try to use Tudor English in her T. Cromwell novels…But I daresay the Kingsnorth novel benefits from the flavour of the antique: I suppose, having had to study Old English as an undergraduate I find the cod version he seems to employ, judging by your quotations, a little irritating. As I say, maybe I should be less picky. All writers, after all, invent the idiom or idiolect of their characters in dialogue and, quite often, in the narrative voice too.

    1. Thanks Simon. To be fair, The Inheritors isn’t in pseudo-ancient language, just fairly restricted in its vocabulary, but I thought it was a good comparison because it seeks to do the same things. I also haven’t read Riddley Walke but you’re right about its intent – and everyone raves about it.

      I agree with you, I think, about cod language. The idea of inventing a halfway-house language seems terrible and yet I couldn’t help but enjoy it and, I think, on the terms the author intended too.

      Curiously, this is the second novel in a year to tell the story of the Battle of Hastings in mock-Old-English, after Philip Terry’s Tapestry, which was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize last year. I have Tapestry but hadn’t read it, thinking it likely to be too much like hard work – now, browsing it, I see it’s much more plainly written than The Wake, so I will probably give it a go after all. (As a related point, it was interesting to me that, given it took me longer to read The Wake than it would have a ‘normal’ 350-page novel, I suspect I would have given up on it if I hadn’t been commissioned to review it. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but just because of some rudimentary mental calculation about how many other books, forever making my shelves creak, I could have got through in the same time. Doesn’t speak well for my likely reading of Proust or The Magic Mountain, unless I will myself to believe that somone is paying me to read them…)

  2. Convincing review, JS, as I bought a copy. I’m 80% an ebook reader these days, so I tested the waters with the free sample. I paid up before getting to the end of it, but that was partly because (although my first impression was that something about The Wake was impressively powerful) I could tell it was going to be a slog, so I decided I might as well make it easy for myself/remove the possibility of “forgetting” to buy the rest of it in the face of all the easier books I have to read.

    I’m part of the Riddley Walker fan base, and there are other dialect/invented-English novels I’ve more-or-less enjoyed in the past–I don’t really differentiate between the two. I’m not sure I agree with you both about faking the archaic, though, not as a less justifiable creative move than faking future lingo. Cloud Atlas’ future-speaking section didn’t do a huge amount for me, and if limiting vocabulary is done in a half-arsed way it could come across like “me-um-big-chief” nonsense that would embarrass a pulp western.

    The Wake made me feel a bit like I do living in a non-English-speaking nation with limited local language skills; my comprehension isn’t zero, but I have to work to follow a conversation, etc. I imagine being dropped into the ninth century might at best feel the same way.

  3. Sadly, I can’t get beyond the paywall, but I did look at this book in a shop the other day, and decided not to buy it – yet! The language reminded me of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban which is of course post-apocalyptic with a regressed language rather than 9th century, but there are many similarities. i found Riddley Walker a rewarding read, but it did require extra concentration and for a short novel probably took double the time to read – this is probably what puts me off The Wake – it’s longish to start off with!

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