THE PLOT: ‘The Dance Tree’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave is historical fiction set in Strasbourg, 1519. After several miscarriages, Lisbet is pregnant again. But it’s a long, hot summer and hunger stalks the streets. When Lisbet’s sister-in-law returns from a nunnery after doing penance for the last 7 years, Lisbet wants to know her crimes. And, in town, a woman has begun dancing in the square. As the number of dancers increases, the church becomes frantic to stop the mania. And Lisbet, her unborn baby and her sister-in-law become dangerously entangled with the plague.
RATING: This is an atmospheric, beautifully written book that is fully deserving of four stars. Lisbet is a captivating main character and it’s wonderfully refreshing to read about the life of an average woman, rather than nobility, in historical fiction. Although Lisbet’s life may seem monotonous, the novel starts with the nerve-wracking premise of a woman pregnant after multiple miscarriages and sharp inciting incident of her sister-in-law’s return after a mysterious absence. This infuses the book with tension and keeps the reader hooked. But the real star of this show is the setting, which is so well-described I could almost feel the heat steaming off the page as summer dragged on. In summary, the writing is masterful so this is a book I would definitely recommend.
GOOD BITS: From the first page, I felt like I was completely “in” the world of this book. Kiran Millwood Hargrave is a beautiful writer and is incredibly impressive on a sentence level, while retaining a strong overarching plot and clear themes. While the mostly female cast were all endearing, particularly in their battle against the patriarchal church, I really enjoyed how the author inserted snippets of other women’s lives. At regular intervals there were short portraits of different women dancing in the town square, and what led them to be there, which really rounded out the novel and provided an extra perspective on events.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I haven’t given this book five stars because the literary style impeded the pacing towards the end. While I loved the writing when I was getting to know the characters, towards the end I just wanted to know what would happen. It’s personal preference but the long, descriptive sentences felt like they were getting in the way of the action and I was jumping over them to race to the end. I also felt like Lisbet’s actions became implausible, with little regard to her unborn child, at crucial points – making some of the plot developments feel unbelievable.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell and ‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker. The descriptive writing style is very similar to many of O’Farrell’s books so I’d class this as literary-historical, with feminist themes. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from reading this novel, both historical and stylistically, and would encourage other aspiring writers to pick it up.
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