Book Review: West Briton Story
by Tom O’Rourke
Corinium Book Publishing, 2010
The action of Tom O’Rourke’s muscular, gripping debut novel West Briton Story takes place in that wild and unscripted long interval between the withdrawal of Roman forces form Great Britain in AD 410 and the codified formation of Anglo-Saxon rule beginning in the 7th Century. It’s an era even most fans of historical fiction won’t know well, an era haunted by bards in smoky halls, by a quilt-work of warring little kingdoms now almost entirely forgotten, when an entire year can be summarized in half a sentence in some monk’s chronicle. It’s rich soil for a novelist with a nose for lost valor, and O’Rourke is such a novelist.
His story is told by Rhuadrac, a good-hearted Briton warrior looking back on a long and eventful life. In his youth (the setting of West Briton Story), he’s the star-struck younger brother of the titanic fighting man Cormac, champion of the West Briton king Farinmael, and virtually from the first page, O’Rourke’s novel takes readers inside a world both alien and tantalizingly familiar. Those who deal with kings must develop an aptitude for psychology, even if nobody in 6th Century England knew the term:
My world changed completely. After the fracas at the feast in Ceawlin’s Hall, I was seen to have saved Uthwine’s life, after a fashion, so Uthwine could not refuse my presence in his war-bands, though he always resented me. I became a freebooter, which meant that I was a Saxon mercenary. But a mercenary with a sponsor, who was Ceawlin, which meant that I had authority in the field and I could keep lose to Uthwine.
(The assured, serpentine twist of those lines is deliberate and far-reachingly effective; the narrative of this book weaves and drawls and punches by turns, until the reader feels he is watching the proceedings as visions in the smoke over a roaring fire-pit in some hall very long ago … there’s a great deal of factual information in these pages, but it’s all delivered in just such a compacted and deceptively agile way)
This being fiction, there’s of course a star-crossed love story: the Caewlin mentioned in the above passage is the king of the Saxons (not at all the grizzled Sean Connery figure that’s such a staple of book set in this time period – in fact, O’Rourke plays him with such subtlety that some readers may wish the entire book were his), and his daughter Ulla is attracted to Rhuadrac, and vice versa. Their interactions are handled without rhetorical hyperventiliation; by the time their mutual desires get them under the bearskins together, it feels like the most natural thing in the world.
But although the love story is etched with surprising sensitivity (as are many of the other similarly ‘civilian’ relationships – especially the parental ones, by far the most memorable in book), this is primarily a war-song of a novel. Both Rhuadrac and Cormac – and the band of fighters they gather about them – are warriors living the warrior’s life. The world of West Briton Story is a precarious one, where lives and kingdoms can come to abrupt endings on the battlefield. This aspect of the story will be familiar to readers coming to this book from the many novels of Bernard Cornwell (or, for that matter, the gore-spattered poetry of the Anglo-Saxon tradition), although O’Rourke infuses it all with a matter-of-fact and almost spare poise that will remind older readers of Alfred Duggan:
“No shield wall. We will fight man to man, let the devil take the loser. Good fortune to every man here today!”
So saying, he turned to face the opposing army, just as the seething mass of men began to move forward on both sides. Even then a great crash of thunder rent the air, and a savage gust of wind blew into our faces, as the first drops of rain began to fall again, but all thoughts of the storm were forgotten.
Historical novels in general – but perhaps particularly those edging closer to our own modern linguistic landscape – must grapple with the problem of character diction, how to walk the line between the florid excesses of Sir Walter Scott and the anachronistic profanities that Cornwell himself prefers. O’Rourke deals with this problem in an unabashedly bardic way, adopting early in the novel a rhythmic pitch that’s straightforward yet slightly enough off to give readers the flavor of another time. When battles erupt, their butcher’s bills are as sharply presented as any war documentary, and yet they’re also suffused with valor and punctuated by quasi-Homeric turns of phrase like “The bodies of many men were broken then …” It has an eerie cumulative effect. It works.
Unlike with many other, more popular settings for historical fiction (Tudor England, Imperial Rome, Colonial America, etc.), the time period of West Briton Story is almost lost to the present day. People study fragments of poetry in school, drive by blurred burial mounds on the side of the highway, and occasionally a farmer uncovers buried treasure in a field. Those buried treasures – weapons, jewelry, arm-bands – are taken in by museums, meticulously cleaned and catalogued, and written up in learned journals. But they fire the imagination, because they speak of lost worlds, unknown courage, epic passions forgotten by chroniclers.
Tom O’Rourke has written a novel that takes those unearthed treasures out of their display cases and restores them to the sunlight – he puts the jewels back on alabaster necks, the coins back in leather purses, and most of all the swords back in strong young hands. The ghosts of those long-dead actors would thank him. Readers will thank him too.