‘The Only Way is Wessex’ is such an unworthy review title for a book of the quality of Stephen Edden’s ‘The Wordsmith’s Tale’, I’m almost too embarrassed to use it. Almost. Stephen Edden takes one hundred years of English history, and following five generations of the same family, weaves a beguiling tale of life and love in Anglo-Saxon Britain. In many ways this is a traditional family saga, there are hatches, matches and dispatches, sharp tongues and idle gossip. The only thing stopping this being a Victorian melodrama, are 900 years of history.
The Wordsmith’s Tale is narrated by Thomas the Piper, who claims to be the great-grandson of Tom Thumb, the diminutive storyteller. His story opens on the night Tom finally tracked down his true love Fleda, Thomas’s (the Piper’s) great-grandmother, and a former unwilling consort of the Saxon king Edgar. The family live out a meagre existence as serfs under a kindly but ineffective Thane. Fleda and Tom’s son, the charismatic ‘Bas the Giant’ decides to take a Viking bride, bringing the family trouble upon trouble. Troubles that still resonate as Thomas tells his tale, one hundred years later.
This is a novel filled with both tenderness and brutality. There are deep bonds of love and camaraderie between the novel’s central players, but the harsh reality of life in the year 1000 is unflinchingly realised. War, plague, starvation, murder, rape, sodomy, and paedophilia all feature many times over. The women of the novel suffer particularly hard; Anglo-Saxon Britain was certainly a man’s world. This is not a novel for the faint-hearted, and yet it is packed with likeable characters and many moments of warmth and pleasure. Most of Tom’s descendants are consummate storytellers, the tall tales they tell are laced with British folklore, giving the novel another, mythical, dimension.
Stephen Edden’s prose is masterly. The predominant use of words with Anglo-Saxon roots, gives the novel an earthy authenticity, making for a wholly satisfying read. A good historical novel should be epitomised by a phrase that is often used to describe modern TV shows – ‘scripted reality’. This phrase fits the ‘The Wordsmith’s Tale’ perfectly, so perhaps my comparison with TOWIE is not so far from the mark. From start to finish ‘The Wordsmith’s Tale’ is a colourful and absorbing novel, describing an overlooked period of history. I am sad to note that the novel’s publisher ‘Beautiful Books’ (who also published the brilliant, but completely different ‘Romeo Spikes’) has gone out of business, so this book may become hard to get hold of. Take my advice and do so as soon as you can.