The Wake is a thoroughly English book. The English writer and thinker Paul Kingsnorth has written Real England, a book about the impact of globalization on the cultural identity of the English. The Wake is his first novel, and it is set in England during the 11th century Norman invasion, a turning point in English history. Yet this book has something to say about modern Canada and our struggle to reconcile our colonial past and present. Likely, it has something to say about any nation that has colonized or been colonized, but Canada, as a nation that was colonized by the English and the French, should pay particular attention to a story about the English being colonized by the French.
It is controversial to suggest we need yet another account of colonization from the English point of view, but The Wake is an important novel in much the same way as Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda. The Orenda is one of Canadian literature’s first balanced accounts of first contact between Indigenous peoples and Europeans, including French and Indigenous points of view, and importantly, multiple Indigenous points of view (it is quite common that Indigenous peoples and their perspectives are presented as a monolith, despite the plural “peoples.”) The Orenda won the 2014 Canada Reads competition, and has been recommended as required reading for all Canadians.
The Wake should also be required reading for Canadians, not for its balanced perspective, and only partially for the old “those who don’t know, doomed to repeat” reasons, but mostly because learning that the Norman invasion was itself a colonization and that English people are no more a monolith than Indigenous peoples are and that the way we label people “Anglo-Saxon” is almost as misguided as the way we used to label Indigenous peoples “Indians” is very much in the spirit of reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate states that “The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.” The Wake addresses the themes of common experience, colonization, violence, and even cultural genocide.
If that doesn’t grab you, The Wake is also a hell of a story, told by the unforgettably unreliable Buccmaster of Holland, in his own words, and in his own language, a “shadow tongue” which the author invented to immerse the reader in Buccmaster’s “angland.”
The main things a reader should know about this “shadow tongue” are that Kingsnorth manipulated Old English to be (mostly) intelligible to modern readers, that The Wake contains few words or letters that aren’t rooted in Old English, that it takes about thirty pages to get the hang of it, and that, yes, there is a glossary.
The breakdown of Anglo-Saxon England is mirrored in Buccmaster’s spectacular personal breakdown, and, while the shadow tongue roots the story in the past, a Canadian reader can’t help but notice the contemporary relevance of Buccmaster’s tale.
But who in Canada even knows about this period in history? Cultural references are few and far between, and most of what we do know is simply the date, 1066.
Thinking across a thousand years of history can be overwhelming. Here in Canada, we’re just starting to wrap our heads around 500 or so years of colonization. In The Wake, we see the Normans (i.e. the French) invade England, effectively ending the Anglo-Saxon way of life, one thousand years ago. But why stop there? Go back another 500 years or so and those Anglo-Saxons are migrating to England and becoming Christians. Five hundred years before that, the Romans occupied England. Each of these events are marked by violence, loss, and oppression.
Reconciliation in Canada is often centred on Indian Residential Schools. Residential schools are specific, unambiguous, and within living memory, which allows them to remind people that reconciliation is a vital thing. But it’s important to recognize how far back the history of colonization goes, too. The Wake shows us that the history is staggering, and still relevant. During some of his rants about the “fuccan frenc,” (which means just what it sounds like,) Buccmaster sounds remarkably like the online comments section of any modern news article about immigration. And like those commenters who won’t budge about “their land” and “their way of life,” Buccmaster is both swaggeringly confident and paralyzingly insecure.
Buccmaster has spent much of his life building up a facade of control and power. Raised by an angry, erratic father, he finds respite in a special bond with his grandfather. Grandfather follows the “eald ways” (old ways,) meaning he doesn’t recognize Christ, but, rather, follows the ways and rituals brought by the Anglo-Saxons when they first arrived in England, hundreds of years earlier. Grandfather teachers Buccmaster of Woden (Odin,) Thunor (Thor,) and Erce, who is mentioned just once, but shows how, to Buccmaster, the old ways and the land (the fenn) go hand in hand:
and ofer all these gods he saes ofer efen great woden was their mothor who is mothor of all who is called erce. erce was this ground itself was angland was the hafoc and the wyrmfleoge and the fenn and the wid sea and the fells of the north and efen the ys lands.
Grandfather is at least 200 years behind the times. Almost everyone in Anglo-Saxon England was Christian by 1066, including Buccmaster’s father, who is not happy about Grandfather’s insistence on teaching little Buccmaster the old ways. Things come to a head when grandfather dies, and Buccmaster fulfils his promise to give grandfather a traditional funeral, which enrages his father. Buccmaster has been stuck between the old ways and the new his whole life, and those old ways are about to be struck a fatal blow, in what amounts to a cultural genocide for Anglo-Saxons.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report came out in 2015, many Canadians heard the words “cultural genocide” for the first time, or at least, for the first time as applied to Canada. From the report:
States that engage in cultural genocide set out to destroy the political and social institutions of the targeted group. Land is seized, and populations are forcibly transferred and their movement is restricted. Languages are banned. Spiritual leaders are persecuted, spiritual practices are forbidden, and objects of spiritual value are confiscated and destroyed. And, most significantly to the issue at hand, families are disrupted to prevent the transmission of cultural values and identity from one generation to the next.
Though England didn’t have an English-speaking ruler for hundreds of years after the events in The Wake, obviously, the English language wasn’t lost. It was drastically changed—the shadow tongue shows the reader how much. It was never endangered, though, as many Indigenous languages in Canada are. But The Wake does portray a form of cultural genocide. Buccmaster’s land is seized. He loses his family, his position, and his possessions. He witnesses his grandfather being stripped of his spiritual practices. He sees the disruption of cultural values in his own family.
No wonder Buccmaster is not surprised that he, and he alone, sees mysterious omens of trouble to come, including Halley’s Comet, which really was visible in 1066. Grandfather taught Buccmaster that “angland” has been slowly slipping away for years. Buccmaster refers to England as having its “sawol eatan” (soul eaten) by “ingenga god and cyng” (foreign god and king):
my father raised me in the circe of the crist as all did in those times for all was blind lic the frenc is now macan us blind. anglisc folcs has had their sawol eatan i saes eatan first by ingenga god and then by ingenga cyng and now what is angland but an ealong in the mist seen when the heafon mofs but nefer reacced again.
Grandfather also gave Buccmaster “Weland’s sword” to remember him, and the old way by. Weland is a legendary blacksmith who is said to have made Beowulf’s sword, among others. After Buccmaster sees omens in the sky, he starts to actually commune with the spirit of Weland. This signals the beginning of Buccmaster’s personal breakdown, but Weland also acts as Buccmaster’s conscience, and as a kind of Greek chorus. In Weland’s first appearance, he introduces himself to Buccmaster as a forger of weapons and a killer of kings:
i is forger of wyrd and waepen
Weland is alternately encouraging and dismissive of Buccmaster’s ability to resist the invaders, and as moody as Buccmaster himself. As Buccmaster starts to amass a small following of resisters, his insecurities, and Weland’s increasingly erratic instructions, lead to several eruptions of violence.
Post-invasion, Buccmaster leads his ragtag group of resisters, or “greenmen” through the woods, where they plot against the French and dream about meeting up with legendary freedom fighter (and actual historical figure) Hereward the Wake, so they can really take a stand. Well, actually, Buccmaster dreads this meeting, because it means he would no longer be in charge. They never find their way to Hereward, and ultimately fail because they are fractured, and because Buccmaster can’t give up control. Anglo-Saxon England as a whole fails in the novel because the people have become disconnected from the land. Because they can’t reconcile the old gods with the new. Because they can’t remember that they came from somewhere else too, that the “frenc ingengas” (French foreigners) are as foreign as they were five or six hundred years earlier, when the Angle and Saxon tribes migrated to England in the first place.
That Buccmaster and his greenmen sound remarkably like the “renegade tribes” that resisted colonization in North America 600 years later, and like parents and children who defied Canadian residential school laws during the twentieth century, is both reason to despair and reason to hope. Despair because resistance to colonization has historically been futile; reason to hope because surely, one of these times, we’re going to learn something.
Speaking of learning: if only The Wake were Canadian, it would certainly end up on Canada Reads, breaking barriers and changing Canada and all that. If Canadians read this book, and learn about colonization in England, it might go a long way to bringing people around to the concept of reconciliation. But wouldn’t the Canada Reads panelists argue that The Wake isn’t accessible enough? Its language is too challenging. No one will read it.
The shadow tongue could make the text impenetrable, or feel gimmicky. It’s a fine line to tread. Kingsnorth believes the shadow tongue was necessary because people in the eleventh century wouldn’t talk like we do now, and that even taking away obvious anachronisms, you can’t just word-for-word translate old into modern English. In “A Note on Language” at the end of the novel, he says, “The early English did not see the world as we do, and their language reflects this… Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes - all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them.”
Contrast this with many other historical fiction writers, Canadian and otherwise, who use plain (or plainer) modern language to tell old stories. Australian historical fiction writer Geraldine Brooks spoke on just this subject at Book Expo America last year, and her perspective was in sharp contrast with Kingsnorth’s. In her view, people haven’t changed that much over the years in terms of the way we think, or our motivations; the things that have changed are just “window-dressing.” It’s impossible to deny the effect of the shadow tongue in The Wake, though. Reading about a lost culture in a lost language is chilling.
The Wake is more that its experimentation with language, though. It’s a character driven novel, and we are fully in Buccmaster's head. He has to carry the story and a thousand years of history. He is somehow both utterly convincing and deeply unreliable, both compelling and unlikeable, and both prophetic and completely lacking in self-awareness. His delusions of grandeur, persecution complex, jealousy, and defensiveness tempt the reader to diagnose him with any number of psychological problems, none of which would make a bit of sense to him. All Buccmaster knows is that “sumthin is cuman.”
Actually, Buccmaster knows more than he’s letting on, and his demons are more frightening than the Normans that burn down his house, killing his wife and servants, early on in the story. Buccmaster knows all about destruction and betrayal, and he learned it before any Norman walked on his land. Buccmaster shows us violence and degradation on a grand and a personal scale.
At one point, as those around Buccmaster finally begin to realize what’s happening (they’re not going to resist the invaders), someone laments that “a bastard will be our cyng and angland will weep for a thousand years.” We’re closing in on a thousand years now, several hundred of which England spent colonizing the rest of the world. When will the weeping stop?
In her review, Carolyn of Rosemary and Reading Glasses asks, “How far back does this chain of suffering extend? What does it mean to be English, French, any one people?” These sound much like the questions Canadians ask about reconciliation: how far back does this pain extend? How many generations have suffered, will suffer? What does it mean to be Canadian? Kingsnorth doesn’t have the answers, but he shows us how people have grappled with these questions for millennia, including the English, colonizers of the modern era. Kingsnorth has created a historical fiction experience that goes so far beyond “immersive” that it’s essentially its own genre. Whether you have British ancestry or not, if you live in Canada, The Wake is part of your history. And no matter who you are, it is essential reading.
I am sitting in a café in Vancouver trying to write a review of Joni Murphy’s Double Teenage. Kayla and I are procrastinating by dreaming up a literary reading series and courting the affection of the establishment’s resident cat. Other writers keep coming by the communal wood table we’re seated at and adding to our discussion. I can’t help but feel like everything I’ve read or experienced up until this point is potent and enmeshed. And today it makes a good web, and I can see a way forward, but I know there are days when this intertwining of experience, history, and theory conspires darkly, when I feel conscripted to perpetuate and witness oppressions, and when I am confused about how to survive it. I am concerned about how art raises questions I cannot answer. These are the issues Murphy addresses in her novel about two curious women whose trajectories remind me of our own.
I keep meeting folks who know you, who speak highly of your dedicated friendship and activism, who tell me how you are this beacon of queer, radical light in your community. I’m not surprised that they adore you like I do. I only wish that our lives overlapped in real time rather than twinning obscurely through graduate school and the queerness we’ve pursued from different sides of the country. I’m proud of how we survived growing up in the same, awful small town, how we endured its material and psychic violences. And, while we share this history, what is more amazing is how what we’ve built for ourselves as adults yokes us together even now.
How art, survival, and violence interact on local and global stages is the tension that underpins Murphy’s novel. Allegorical yet timely, Double Teenage tells a dark and beautiful tale of two childhood best friends, Julie and Celine, who grow up together in the Southwest in the 1990s. They drift apart while studying art and theory as adults in their adopted homes of Vancouver and Chicago. But their lives remain intertwined because of their shared desert incubation and the struggles they face when they enter the academy and the art world.
Murphy captures how women navigate both subject and object positions—how they flicker between experiencing the world and observing themselves in it. And this is what brings Celine and Julie together in addition to their childhood friendship and philosophical pursuits. Murphy writes: “They learned so much; they learned to think about themselves as if from the outside.” Murphy tracks how this subject-object position plays out broadly in the culture, and in the minutiae of the everyday and the interpersonal, demonstrating how Julie and Celine subsume and attempt to resist the limitations imposed on them through their art, writing and relationships.
The novel charts the intricacies of a formative friendship as it converges and diverges over time. Julie and Celine first bond over their mutual love of local theatre where they learn about performance on stage and in real life. As teenagers, they witness the intimate links that bind people together, in productive and violent ways, in the microcosm of a desert college town. As adults, they follow different but similar paths into the broader world where they grapple with the saturation of routine and systemic gender-based violence. From their privileged positions within grad school, Murphy shows the progressive philosophical bubble to be fraught with contradiction and its own patterns of oppression. In response to this challenge, the women arm themselves with language—Julie writes critical essays about the portrayal of dead girls’ bodies; Celine creates performance art that processes a hometown tragedy; and they both write tender, complex love letters to partners and sometimes to each other. Murphy suggests that art can magically rally and heal and just as easily obscure and harm. Julie’s experience in graduate school gets at this complex relationship between language and experience:
Julie kept encountering the figure of the cutter; philosophers seemed to love these crazy girls. Though she read about it and recalled vividly Celine with blood running down her arms and Band-Aids under her dresses she would not speak up in class. Julie hated the women in the women’s studies classes who described their own experiences in relation to the text but she remained silent about that as well. She hated the girl in her program writing a thesis on sex positivity. She made her face a mask. Julie actually preferred reading European men who clearly had female troubles.
Murphy chooses a difficult, conflicted stance for the novel as it thinks through the North American obsession with violated and dead feminine bodies. There is no clear way forward because critical thought can connect people, but also alienate them from each other.
The text integrates the Ciudad Juarez femicides and Robert Pickton’s murders of women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside into its plot, mirroring white middle-class engagement with gendered, racialized, class-based violence. Murphy shows how we learn about these kinds of atrocities from the media often in a shabby but safe kitchen and then mull them over in unresolved discussions at parties.
Importantly, Murphy chooses to not deploy the murders as ominous, distant hauntings: they are integrated with urgency into both the plot and form of the novel. For example, while in the Pacific Northwest, Julie writes about Laura Palmer’s specter in Twin Peaks and notices “philosophers [who] seemed to love these crazy girls.” In the middle of this academic task, she reflects on an example of gender-based violence from her hometown. Murphy then juxtaposes Julie’s academic life in Vancouver with the emerging details of the Pickton murders—his family’s social and economic rise and his targeting of vulnerable women on the margins of society. Later, in a more formally innovative section of the novel, the author reprimands Canadian indifference by quoting former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s comments that the rampant murder of First Nations women is not a sociological phenomenon. The overlapping layers are dizzying, but necessary. The text bears witness and refuses to forget.
In the final portion of the novel, Murphy experiments with form, weaving Celine and Julie’s narratives together with media and theory. In the concluding numbered sections of the novel, the text relinquish its adherence to verisimilitude and becomes pithier as well as more poetic, incantatory, associative, and combative:
The girls were getting to that point where they felt almost able to grasp what was happening but it made no difference. They still felt crazy. Knowing would not be enough and pinning something down was impossible. The violence they first thought of as geographically specific was actually miasmic. Its specific hue was bound up with their place and time. But even still, the hues of these violences were in the same family, red fading to black, black fading to brown.
No one is to blame Or blame goes round and round
This is a play about the bloody spotting of system, the ruined panties of the state.
The progression from realistic, beautiful narration to a looser collection of sprawling meditations is effective—Murphy commits to telling the story in plain terms and then scrambles the narrative to ask larger questions. She earns our trust before opening the novel up to its glorious and challenging irresolution, inviting readers to investigate their own relationships to the representation and processing of oppression through art.
Murphy’s novel is a fairytale set in real places that have their own mythologies and histories—the surreal desert, the rainy Pacific Northwest, the chilly and gritty Northeast. In her depictions of these settings, Murphy demonstrates how reality and metaphor superimpose to form a place:
Celine felt the desert was a science fiction. This kind of landscape doesn’t appear in the real world or TV except as the setting for alien planets and westerns.
The novel takes the lives of young women seriously. Murphy shows how danger is often nearby, known, mundane. Double Teenage doesn’t quite feel like a coming-of-age novel, although that is a fine genre. It’s more properly in line with Chris Kraus’s theory-as-novel genre. In its exigent dialogue with popular culture, high art, and theory that connects to women’s experiences and desires, Double Teenage is reminiscent of I Love Dick. However, in Murphy’s novel, the distant love between two women proffers the site of projection onto which the two characters hurl their thoughts and feelings. And Murphy seems to suggest this interpersonal connection that endures despite external and internalized misogyny is magic and is its own dizzying and overlapping network of survival and creation. In a culture mostly interested in the spectacle of dead girls, Double Teenage is a formally provocative counter spell to the facts of violence.
Anyway, Sarah, I couldn’t help but knit you into this narrative. I know you’d have your own interpretation of the novel, nuanced and different from mine. I think we could have a discussion about race that makes explicit some things Murphy touches on implicitly. I don’t think the novel is direct and urgent because I relate to Julie and Celine. While the trajectory of my life resonates with theirs, I still felt a cool distance from the characters—maybe that’s the queerness or my age. But there are channels of ferocity and tenderness in the novel that I laud. You know about the ongoing labour of fierceness and empathy.
When I hit the final lines of Murphy’s novel, in which Julie lovingly addresses her estranged friend Celine, I immediately thought of you:
I miss you with my whole heart.
And so Murphy’s novel is compelling me to write to you in the hopes that my message will create a wormhole, that it will fold the continent so that I can reach out to you in Montreal and share this affirmative spell.
ADÈLE BARCLAY'S writing has appeared in The Literary Review of Canada, The Pinch, PRISM, The Fiddlehead, and elsewhere. Her debut collection of poetry, If I Were In A Cage I'd Reach Out For You, was shortlisted for the 2015 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and is forthcoming from Nightwood Editions in fall 2016. She is the Interviews Editor for The Rusty Toque.
Monthly reviews of poetry and fiction.