It’s not every day that you read a book that strikes you as something completely new. When I was offered the chance to read a review copy of Kenneth Steven’s The Well of the North Wind, I was pleased to have the opportunity, but unsure of what to expect. What I found was a book that was a million miles away from my standard reading list of fantasy, sci-fi, Christian non-fiction and ‘classic’ literature.
This short novel (coming in at around 150 pages) is set in 6th century Britain, taking place predominantly in Ireland and islands around Ireland and Scotland, so already, it’s not a commonly used setting. The novel itself follows the early life of Fian, a boy born in an Irish village and then raised through later childhood and adolescence in monastic communities that have settled the area and begun to spread the message of Christianity. In the course of his childhood, Fian is taken to one such community where he meets Colum, who is actually the historical St Columba, and in this location undertakes work as a scribe. This is the background for a story that follows Fian’s relationships with the local people, particularly a girl named Mara, with the monks, and with the God that the monks believe in.
This is not a novel that appears overly driven by the plot. There is a progression from event to event, but those events seemed to me to have more importance in themselves, rather than simply functioning to drive on some bigger plot. The language of the book is simple, childlike in places, and, for me, served to ground the narrative more clearly in the consciousness of Fian and, to a lesser extent, those around him. Though this is a novel narrated in the third person, Stevens creates a closeness to the characters that not all third person narratives achieve.
This is essential to the book because it leans so heavily on the experiences of those characters, Fian especially. It is a novel that invites you into their most private thoughts, doubts and fear, and carries a lot of emotional weight because of that. At times, I’ll admit, I got a bit lost with where the narrative was trying to take me, or what was going on in certain bits, but on reflection, those kind of details are really much less important than the emotional journey that you are invited to join Fian on.
In fact, some of the vagueness of details that did, at times, frustrate me, serve to further that experience of being inside Fian’s head. Your knowledge is largely limited to his knowledge, and those limits are very real in the book. He is not a main character who has it all sorted; he is not necessarily there as an archetype or an example, as some main characters in novels by Christians are. He is there as a lens through which you can view his world, and maybe reflect on your own life in the light of that. His view of the world is refreshingly unsure and honest. He doesn’t know if he believes in the God of the monks, and Steven doesn’t shy away from that. He develops the character and allows him to be real.
The Well of the North Wind was an excellent book. It was not necessarily the easiest read, despite its length, but those features that made it more difficult in places put in fantastic work elsewhere, drawing you in to the very real lives of the characters. It is an emotionally sensitive, refreshingly honest book, and brings a little known period of British history vividly to life.