City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

cityofbohaneThe taint that emanates from the Bohane River seeps into the spirits of everyone in the city sprawled around it. Life is short & cheap, in the most Hobbesian sense. Filthy and crass. Children engage in their violent careers around the same age they do in A Clockwork Orange. Amidst the morass, aging gang-boss Logan Hartnett, the Longfella, fields challenges from all sides — vanquished foes resurfacing from twenty years past, disloyal lieutenants looking for a change of leadership, rival gangs getting uppity.

The plot is fun, but its centerpiece of “A patriarch wanes and a successor must arise” is not the sort full of twists, turns, and surprises. The characters aren’t flat or forgettable, but neither are they outstanding or memorable. It’s the style, the tone, the vernacular that shines. I can’t say this enough. Style, style, style. Even the flashy style of clothes the characters are wearing is a consistent aside in near every chapter.

Ol’ Boy wore:

High-top boots expensively clicker’d with gold taps, a pair of hip-hugging jodhpur-style pants in a faded mauve tone, an amount of gold chains, a heavy mink coat to keep out the worst of the hardwind’s assaults and a goatskin beanie hat set pavee-style at the crown of his head.

Truth of it — this was as suave an old dude as you’d come across in the whole of the Bohane creation.

“An amount of gold chains”. I love it.

But it left me in a weird spot. As I enjoyed this dazzling, clever language while it described the brooding, tactile city of Bohane, I found myself comparatively caring very little for the individual characters inhabiting it and the plots/wiles/etc they tangled each other in. When main characters started dropping, I was more like “Hm, OK, I see.” rather than expressing dismay, satisfaction, whatever.

Normally, this would be the sign of a bad or at least mediocre book, but City of Bohane is neither. It’s quite good. Just a bit empty.

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The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

the wakegraetings raeder, this bocc was a thryll, i saes to thu, a triewe thryll.

This is the story of our hero, buccmaster of holland, a man displaced in the year 1066 by the arrival of kyng geeyome and his french cronies, and buccmaster’s travels across an England all aflame.

It is fantastic. It succeeds on three different, but entwined levels:

1. The language

Our assumptions, our politics, our worldview, our attitudes — all are implicit in our words, and what we do with them. To put 21st century sentences into the mouths of eleventh century characters would be the equivalent of giving them iPads and cappuccinos: just wrong.

Kingsnorth has created a hodgepodge language (a ‘shadow tongue’) of old english, modern english, and hybrid-y made-up words. It’s not as difficult as it sounds; most words can be simply sounded out (folc = folk, blaec = black, wifeman = woman) and are clear by context. Others took me a while to puzzle out (sawol = soul, deoful = devil) and there’s a few words like esol and ingenga that are just old or made up words but near-immediately clear from context as to what they mean.

I know some readers despise having to learn a dialect, espousing the notion that good writing conducts these qualities without linguistic hijinx. And that an activity used for entertainment should not require work. I couldn’t disagree with this notion more. As Kingswolf articulates in the quote above — you cannot truly understand a people until you delve closely into the way they think, which exists within the sphere of their language. It’s also why no matter how great a translation from one language to a next is, it will still always be imperfect.

2. Our hero

i is buccmaster of holland i is a socman a man of the wapentac i has three oxgangs and this is my werod. this is my werod and this is my sweord and those wolde leaf with this fuccan preost go now go north go to sec thy earols and beorn lic the landwaster did in northern fyr

buccmaster of holland, a socman of three oxgangs, is a goddamn asshole. He’s a petty, violent, coward obsessed with his own greatness. He thinks he’s the only real englishman left in England. Literally the only positive quality he sees in other people is obeisance to him. He has the voices of ‘eald anglisc gods’ in his head, which are actually originally the norse gods, telling him he’s weak and urging him to fight  (making this the 2nd historical fiction book I’ve read featuring a mad englishman with a voice in his head in as many months).

And you spend the entire novel intimate with this scoundrel, amidst the muddled and contradictory fear and hate that make up his thought processes. It’s litany of 11th century hate, for everything — foreigners, his countrymen, his family, society, religion, the young, the old. Yet despite that you could easily see the same type of man reflected in a present day ultra-conservative pining for days bygone, thinking themselves the only real American (insert your country), lamenting giving women any rights or utterly opposed to any change whatsoever.

And he’s one of the best written protagonists I’ve followed in years. I can hear the fucker muttering his greatness in my sleep. Even after he does something bafflingly cruel and brutal, I can’t help but chuckle when he again uses as his justification the fact that he’s a a triewe anglisc man, buccmaster of holland, a socman of three oxgangs. He’s just so bitter, so full of rage. And also pathetic and devoid of self awareness. His wife and sons are murdered and he whines about the inconvenience to him.

3. The history

Laughably, the blurb for this book states:

Everyone knows the date of the Battle of Hastings. Far fewer people know what happened next…

I guess ‘everyone’ in this context means some englishpeople and historians. Real quick primer: The french rapidly conquered England, and burned, raped, and siphoned the wealth of the good people across England. But in this era of history, England was massively decentralized and underpopulated. The numbers were very small. So a few men escaping the sack of their village (a ‘ham’ of a handful of houses) could hide in the fen or forest, a place the foreign-born french could not pursue them and pick off the invaders in guerilla combat.

It was less a war than pure colonization. The french despised the english and had no problem quashing their customs and ways.The modern english we know today are a combo of french and english from the time. The old gods were already on their way out in favor of ‘the hwit crist’, but the french greatly accelerated the Christianizing of England. Hereditary monarchy and land ownership transmitting through first born sons are old french constructs, not english. Following the events of The Wake, there was not another king who spoke english as a first language for a good 250 years! Contrary to the book blurb’s ‘everyone…’, I knew nothing about this era of history and found it fascinating. I would have guessed old english gods were celtic, not norse.

we is men of the hidden places of our own places and our worc is to stand for the lands we cnawan and cum from to cepe our folc free. and when there is enough of us angland will not be ham for no ingenga and none will stand to be here for none can lif if the treows the ground the hylls them selfs is waepened agan all comers


(buccmaster was wrong)