Frenchies is ycumen in—lhude sing Shazam!
The fens of eastern England, so memorably inhabited by Graham Swift in his 1984 novel Waterland, are no place for an outsider to wander into. Least of all if that outsider is a Norman, for then he’s likely to confront—well, if not Grendel, then a sturdy fellow named Buccmaster of Holland, who acts as if he owns the place. And so he does, for he lives on “three oxgangs of good land” on “an ealond in the fenns on all sides the wilde”—that is, about 60 acres on an island surrounded by wilderness and water, the kind of place where, with his peasant workers and his passel of sons, he can ignore the rest of the world. But he can’t, in the end, for with the arrival of William the Conqueror and company to the south and the Vikings to the north in that fated year 1066, Buccmaster is called on to do battle in the name of the Anglo-Saxon crown. Debut novelist and environmental journalist Kingsnorth opens with an ominous quotation from William of Malmesbury, to wit, “England is become the residence of foreigners and the property of strangers”—the sort of thing that an anti-EU type might dredge up today, perhaps, but that also nicely announces Buccmaster’s determination to keep not just the persons of the furriners out, but also their customs and manners, for “efry daeg they is cwellan us the cyng and the crist”—that is, every day the king and Christ are killing us. Kingsnorth’s use of an ever so slightly streamlined version of Old English to convey Buccmaster’s story, rich in ghosts and the old gods, is daring, but after a time it feels like a parlor trick: one wonders whether the story would have been better served with more straightforward, modern language. However, for the patient reader willing to puzzle and pause, the words are mostly clear enough, as when our man grumbles, “all i will hiere from thu is scit i saes” meaningfully, waxing most wroth.
One can’t fault Kingsnorth for lack of ambition, though his story stumbles under its own linguistic weight. The reader will judge whether it’s worth the heafodpanneteung.