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The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Historical Fiction
The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

By Jo Nestor

The Dance Tree is Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s second novel for adults. Her first, The Mercies (Picador, 2020), became an instant Sunday Times bestseller, won a Betty Task Award, was long-listed for the Jhalak Prize, and was named amongst The New York Times ‘100 Most Notable Books of 2020’. She’s also written six children’s books, two of which are multi-award-winning. If you’re new to her as an author, be assured that all of her writing accolades are utterly justified.

Her fictional adult novels, both of which I’ve read, are based on well-researched historical facts. This is helpful for the reader to know because, otherwise, some of the story lines would defy logic. Until I read The Dance Tree, for example, I knew nothing about the ‘dancing plagues’ that occurred regularly in Central Europe between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries. The old adage, ‘Fact is stranger than fiction’, most certainly applies. In an informative Author’s Note at the back of the book, Kiran tells us,

‘In July 1518, in the midst of the hottest summer Central Europe had ever known, a woman whose name is recorded as Frau Troffea began to dance in the streets of Strasbourg. This was no ordinary dance – it was unrelenting, closer to a trance than a celebration. She danced for days, any attempts to make her rest thwarted, until it drew the attention of the Twenty-One, the city’s council, and she was taken to the shrine of St Vitus, patron saint of dancers and musicians. After being bathed in the spring there, she stopped dancing.

But it was too late. Already, the dancing plague had spread, and it lasted two sweltering, frenzied months. At its height, up to four hundred people danced, with claims that up to fifteen people a day died. It is the biggest outbreak of such a mania recorded.’

As the national Irish treasure that is Marty Whelan might say (Marty in the Morning, RTE LyricFM): ‘You can’t argue with facts like that.’ The Dance Tree is set during that infamous summer of 1518. It’s a fascinating story, which unfolds in and around Strasbourg, informed by this astonishing (to me) social and religious history. I mean, you literally couldn’t make it up. And as if this documented dance mania wasn’t enough, Kiran adds,

‘The sixteenth century was especially plagued by extreme weather events, and though these are now easily explained by science, at the time there was only one explanation for the endless ruined harvests, the excruciatingly hot summers, and the winters so cold people froze to death in the streets. God was punishing the human race, and they must atone.

At the very end of the fifteenth century, He had sent a warning: a comet that many notorious preachers … pointed to as a sign of damnation. It threw the Alsace region … into a state of panic, heightened by wars at the borders … as well as by two decades of floods and drought that decimated crops.’

Consider, then, what daily life must’ve been like during this unprecedented onslaught of natural disasters taking place over several decades in Central Europe, and throw in for good measure the vice-like grip that religious entities had over the general population at that time. In order to survive, poor and disenfranchised people were forced to borrow from the Church, an organisation ‘who seemed to be more a business than representatives of God.’

As an astute storyteller, mindful of her responsibilities, of course Kiran does far more than string together documented facts of social history and climate events. The Dance Tree is a carefully developed impassioned story of family secrets, filled with believable characters, many of whom are women pushed to the edge. She writes authentically, too, about forbidden love and clandestine passion, stating in her Author’s Note:

‘It’s easy to draw lines from then to now in attitudes to the LGBTQ+ community, to immigrants, to class.’

Throughout The Dance Tree, Kiran consistently displays an elegant and engaging writing style, a considered use of words and sentence structure, such that it felt to me like a sensory experience:

‘They go to the horse market, but there is not a horse in sight. Instead, a stage that women mount, beginning to weave through the others that dance there … It is clearly their first time in the grip of divinity for many. They will wear themselves out fast as a candle in a draught. Even as she watches, a woman collapses, convulsing once, twice, eyes rolled back, white as peeled eggs.’

There’s love and redemption in the story, as well as loss, pain and happiness. But, again and again, what The Dance Tree shows us is evidence of the human spirit’s resolute strength to overcome unimaginable obstacles in the face of apparent adversity. Prepare to be amazed, informed and enthralled as you’re transported to a well-documented specific period in European history, one that resonates, with more parallels than you might imagine, to the present day.

Madeline Miller: ‘Gripping, visceral and immersive.’

Tracy Chevalier: ‘Took my breath away.’

Marian Keyes: ‘Something rare and beautiful.’

The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood HargraveKiran, thank you for taking such care and consideration with your storytelling, as well as your phenomenal research, to bring us the extraordinary story of The Dance Tree in all its beautiful intricate layers. It’s truly a joy to read.

(c) Jo Nestor

Order your copy online here.

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