Samantha Harvey

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Samantha Harvey was born in England in 1975. She has lived in Ireland, New Zealand and Japan, writing, travelling and teaching, and in recent years has co-founded an environmental charity alongside her novel writing. She has a masters degree in Philosophy and completed with distinction the Bath Spa Creative Writing MA course in 2005. THE WILDERNESS was her acclaimed first novel, which won the Betty Trask Prize and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Orange Prize and the Guardian First Book Award. Her second novel, ALL IS SONG, was published by Jonathan Cape in January 2012 to excellent reviews. Her third novel, DEAR THIEF , was published in 2014 by Jonathan Cape, and Ecco/Harper Collins in the US. It was longlisted for the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, and has since been shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2015. 

Her new novel, THE WESTERN WIND, was published by Jonathan Cape in early March 2018. 

Praise for THE WESTERN WIND (2018): 

'Harvey is a sublime stylist whose prose is never less than poetic.' Anna Katharina Schaffner, TLS 

‘Leaving aside its structural daring and prose at once precise and suggestive, it is an exhilarating mystery that pitches familiar tropes – a bereaved and fearful community, a melancholy investigator and his unsympathetic superior, a frantic search for deeds and wills – into the heart of late 15th-century rural England. The collision of the early modern and the present-day is startling and energising, and never does it seem stagey. […] It is a novel to read and then to read again, with a second go revealing an even more expert and carefully controlled patterning and intent and allowing Harvey’s striking topographical and animal metaphors to percolate further. Literary reputations are almost entirely unguessable, and sometimes unfair; but, early in the year though it is, this must surely be in the running for one of its best novels.’ Alex Clark, Spectator

‘This time last year […] I pondered the wisdom of declaring my book of the year in March but was happily vindicated when George Saunders went on to win the Man Booker Prize 2017. So, thus emboldened, I’m going to call it again (my book of the year); The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey. It is quite unlike anything else I have read. […] The truly extraordinary thing about this novel is the way Harvey re-creates the mindset and beliefs of the medieval world, and makes the concerns of 500 years ago vivid and immediate.’ Alice O’Keefe, Bookseller Book of the Month, Dec ‘17

‘Harvey specialises in the unravelling both of mental states and narratives, so it’s appropriate perhaps that her fourth, The Western Wind, is a medieval detective story. […] Harvey delivers all this with the intelligence and sympathy you would expect from the author of The Wilderness. Her typical concerns present themselves: captivation by a moment of being; the passing nature of happiness; and what critic Gaby Wood described in 2015 as the “drama of defeat”. Her door, like Reve’s, is open to everything human, even the villagers’ more medieval excesses of behaviour and belief, including European animal mask rituals reminiscent of an Axel Hoedt photograph. Her prose is as rich as ever, her structures clever and efficient. The narrative is an indirect, cumulative revelation of something we half-guessed from the beginning, but which remains shadowy enough that we daren’t put the book down in case we’re proved right. […] The Western Wind is as densely packed as all of Harvey’s work: it’s a historical novel full of the liveliness and gristle of the period it depicts; an absorbing mystery with an unpredictable flurry of twists in its last few pages; a scarily nuanced examination of a long-term moral collapse; a beautifully conceived and entangled metaphor for Britain’s shifting relationships with Europe. But most of all it’s a deeply human novel of the grace to be found in people.’ M. John Harrison, Guardian

‘[A] rich and sumptuous delight. At the micro-level of the individual sentences, the language manages to be both luminously lyrical and endlessly sharp. […] On the wider historical level, the compelling portrait of that medieval world is given added poignancy by the distant drumbeat of the Reformation – and with it, a reminder that it’s a world far more precarious than anybody in it could possibly have imagined. […] And, in the end, for all its many other qualities – including the more traditional satisfactions of pace and plotting – it’s perhaps as a character study that The Western Wind works most triumphantly, with Reve’s spectacularly mixed motives impeccably delineated. […] [E]ven the most glowing reviews of [Harvey’s] work have tended to be accompanied by a rueful acknowledgement of how underrated she is. The Western Wind will surely mean that she’s not underrated any more.’ Daily Telegraph  

‘[W]hile Samantha Harvey’s fourth novel is on the surface a medieval whodunit, it is also a fine character study, and a brilliantly convincing evocation of both time and place. Father Reve is a wonderful creation: patient, wry, humane, riven by doubt and full of empathy for the villagers who come to his little church to confess their trivial sins. His voice is totally convincing, never slipping into caricature or cliché, and Harvey creates for him an inner life so rich and detailed that at times the experience her book engenders is less like reading a novel and more akin to time travel – something I’ve only previously encountered in the work of Hilary Mantel. And like Mantel, Harvey’s historical research is exemplary, but lightly worn: she evokes the drab, circumscribed but shifting late medieval world by telling details often related to the senses, rather than relying on historical exposition, hammy language or clumsy attempts to make strange. There is great pleasure to be had in those vertiginous moments when authentic, banal reality – what the medieval friar-philosopher Duns Scotus would have called the haecceitas, or “thisness” of the past – seems briefly to make itself known to the imagination, and The Western Wind is almost uniquely satisfying in this regard.’ Financial Times

‘While ostensibly a change of tack, The Western Wind, about a priest who purports to investigate the drowning of a wealthy landowner, sticks to [Harvey’s] abiding theme of how easily memory – a matter of belief – can lapse into self-deception. […] Harvey has in the past been a dab hand with an unreliable narrator and the sly structure of Reve’s account, which starts four days after Newman’s death before moving backwards, gives his actions layers of significance that it takes time to excavate. […] The story is rich and tangled but never slow. Harvey isn’t afraid to end a chapter with a jolt of drama (“it was then that I heard something crash”) and her language is relaxed, easy on ye olde syntax and with only a dash of antique vocabulary […] it’s hard not to be riveted by [Harvey’s] portrait of a fearful community in the grip of secrecy, or to admire the complexly drawn protagonist who, inwardly grappling with his faith, isn’t so holy that he’s above a bit of realpolitik.’ Observer

‘[The Western Wind] is at once a literary detective story, an awkward confession, a study of a crisis in authority and faith, and a moving portrait of a tight-knit community’s dim awareness of encroaching threat. […] There is a feeling that it could establish Harvey as a commercial, as well as literary, contender. […] In the novel, the process of pre-Lent confession – mandatory, because of the investigation into the drowning of one of their fellows – becomes a clever device for introducing us to the villagers, but also to multiple unreliable confessions. The novel skilfully evokes their world – comparisons with Jim Crace’s Harvest or Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels stand.’ Sunday Times   

‘Another luminous classic […] so ingenious in its plotting and characterisation that it begs to be read twice – the second reading a confirmation of what is slowly, tantalisingly revealed in the first. This mysterious, ominous novel begins at the end of the story with the discovery of the body. It beautifully works its way back to the start, sparking and flickering with the jealousies, affairs, conflicts and desires of the villagers, who are brilliantly described as they go about their days. At the heart of this tinderbox is naïve, clever, often-foolish Reve, who is as fallible as his parishioners but attempting to make the best of a situation that is becoming increasingly fraught and fractious. Samantha Harvey’s prose is luminous, a wonderfully lyrical look at the way religious belief and pragmatism battles it out in the heart of a good man.’ Daily Express *****

‘[T]he yearning to speak one’s sins and be forgiven lies at the heart of Samantha Harvey’s brooding historical mystery […] Like all good whodunits, The Western Wind teases us with possibilities. […] Harvey’s prose is rich in both local and historical detail; the novel powerfully conveys the murky atmosphere of Oakham, “churned and soaked and listless in its mood and colour”. The first-person narration similarly immerses us in Reve’s perplexities: his moral path is as muddy as the tracks down to the river. […] But The Western Wind is not really meant to be a puzzle; instead, its mystery provides the occasion for a compelling account of a place and time fraught with tensions, and of a complex man who has reached for salvation but found only “a moment of fractured hope”.’ Times Literary Supplement

The Western Wind is remarkable and often beautiful, well enough written to be called exhilarating […] Once you understand why the narrative has been structured [in reverse], you will recognise the author’s cleverness […] Her novel is darkly atmospheric, descriptions of weather, scenery, the village and the harsh lives of the parishioners darkly convincing. Harvey succeeds in making the imaginative leap from our own secular age to one in which there is widespread certainty that this life is no more than a prelude to eternity, and a testing-ground for men and women. […] The Western Wind is a novel by a very talented author, one which is often beautifully and evocatively written, clever in structure, and decidedly unusual. […] [A] novel that will surely feature on prize shortlists.’ The Scotsman

The Western Wind starts off with a drowned man in a river. Set in the 1400s but never feeling dusty or distant, this astonishing book is at once a rollicking mystery and a profound meditation on faith and existence.’ Guardian ‘The best fiction for 2018’

The Western Wind is an extraordinary, wise, wild and beautiful book - a thrilling mystery story and a lyrical enquiry into ideas of certainty and belief. Surprising, richly imagined, gloriously strange - the best kind of fiction.’ Joanna Kavenna, author of A Field Guide to Reality

‘Harvey is up there with the best writers working today. Here she makes the medieval world feel as relevant and pressing as tomorrow morning because – as always – she captures the immutable stuff of the human condition.’ Nathan Filer, author of The Shock of the Fall

Trumping all the [other forthcoming books] might be Samantha Harvey, whose relative anonymity should end if her next novel, The Western Wind, does as well as it deserves come March. Set in 15th-century England, it is a murder mystery, an acute dissection of class and money, and fabulously written.’ James Kidd, South China Morning Post ‘The must-read books to come in 2018’

Praise for DEAR THIEF (2014): 

Shortlisted for the 2015 James Tait Black Memorial Prize; Longlisted for the 2015 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction; Longlisted for the 2015 Jerwood Prize

Dear Thief is a beautiful […] novel with no interest in conformity. Harvey’s book is propelled not by the usual structures of novel writing but by the quality of its author’s mind, by the luminousness of her prose, and by an ardent innocence of speculation that is rare in contemporary fiction. […] It is a strange and exhilarating journey, unlike anything I have recently encountered. […] One of the regular rewards of [the novel’s] prose is its careful attention to the world […] Harvey’s rarity can be found in her ability to move from the ordinary to the speculative, her dance to and from the metaphysical. There is steady pleasure and consolation in this for the reader […] Even as it tells its tale of determinism and fatality, this remarkable novel asserts its own curious freedoms.’ James Wood, New Yorker

Dear Thief is a novel of profound beauty. I’ll leave it at that.’ Michael Cunningham

‘A glorious, sensuous, grown-up novel, intelligent and passionate.’ Tessa Hadley

‘Samantha Harvey is a writer whose resolutely questing novels are, to use a phrase from her new novel, “like fresh air in a sick room”. […] Indubitably intelligent, Harvey’s prose is also quite simply ravishing; whatever the complex ideas surging beneath, the narrative order does not falter. She is interested in what at first glance seem unfashionable topics for contemporary fiction: theology, philosophy – both Western and Eastern – and that transfiguring divinity in human beings which can loosely be interpreted as a state of grace. Abstract ideas take on, in Harvey’s hands, the power of necessity, most potently in [Dear Thief] […] Harvey’s novel is compassionate, matter-of-fact and mysterious about death and its ultimate transforming […] in her exploration of relationships and the arc of a marriage which, by the end of the story, might be revived or relinquished for good, Harvey offers an incandescent vision of hope and acceptance.’ Catherine Taylor, Telegraph *****

‘Samantha Harvey continues to confound expectations. […] Dear Thief, [her] atmospheric third novel, denotes a major shift in gear. […] The novel is presented as a long letter, a literary decide that is difficult to pull off, but Harvey’s innovations electrify every word. […] In the voice of a middle-aged woman looking back over her marriage, Harvey had struck gold. It is an educated and meditative voice, reminiscent of those deployed by great stylists such as WG Sebald, Claire Messud, John Banville and Joseph O’Neill. […] In most books, events happen solely on the page. In the best books, events happen in the reader, too. Perhaps because it is so intimate, so honest, so raw, Dear Thief provokes you to think about life, and Life, and your own life, the people in it as well as the ghosts.’ Claire Kilroy, Guardian

Dear Thief is nothing less than a sermon to the lost, a lamentation echoing through the halls from which we have ejected God, an unblinking examination of art and love and death as different emanations of the same truth, the existence of which we can only trace the outlines with hope. […] It is the concern that behind the gauze of this life is simply nothingness that powers the unrelenting tension of Harvey’s stunning novel. […] Dear Thief is worthy of the abused critical adjectives philosophical, atmospheric, and masterful.’ The Daily Beast

‘Intimate, direct yet oddly mysterious […] one of the most beguiling novels of the year. […] Because the novel is written in the second person – “In answer to a question you asked a long time ago,” it begins – it gets you in its grip. The reader is instantly implicated in the story: though clearly you are not Butterfly, you are nevertheless somehow thrown into the shape of a character, and into an acquaintance with the narrator that suggests, as if by dim remembrance, that you each other once, and well. Harvey’s language is poetry, in a way that’s brave rather than sentimental, and her intricate observations demand to be dwelled upon. […] My advice would be not to wait until the next lifetime to discover this generation’s Virginia Woolf. The time to read Dear Thief is now.’ Gaby Wood, Telegraph

‘Harvey manages to trick the reader into believing that the writer simply wants to recount certain events of her life. But then it transpires the reason behind the letter lies deeper. Inventing characters and stories, says the narrator, is more rewarding: "How do you tell the difference between a person made of flesh and one made of words?" At the end of the book, we are not told whether the protagonist is going to reunite with her husband, or find Butterfly – the novel is too subtle for happy endings. What we do know is that by writing this letter she has got closer to finding her own self.’ Independent

Singular and haunting […] the sensuous, atmospheric tale Harvey has chosen to tell is (refreshingly) not the obvious there-are-three-people-in-this-marriage yarn. Indeed, Nicholas is something of a peripheral figure. Instead, it’s Nina and her subsequent fate that Harvey’s narrator broods over, with an intensity that could be described as love.’ Daily Mail

Praise for ALL IS SONG (2012):

‘Samantha Harvey's second novel is a languorous philosophical dialogue. It is slow but sensitively elegant. The brothers' discussions are dense and conceptually precise, repeatedly circling back to the same point. Likewise, Harvey's own prose articulates and re-articulates images and motifs, until they attain perfect, limpid expression: "We sculpt ourselves over time with our most persistent moods, as though our faces are dunes and our temperaments the winds that blow them into shape."’ Independent 

‘This is a novel of ideas that also creates believable characters and explores complex relationships. Harvey's prose is graceful and unhurried, full of sharp observation and moments of subtly understated pathos. It's good to read the work of a writer who refuses to compromise or fit neatly into any given category, one brave enough to tackle such uncommercial subjects as myth, religion and the nature and value of contemplation. If Christ returned, how would he fare in today's world? Many writers have tackled this question, most speculating that, more likely than not, he'd end up in an institution. Harvey is the first to apply this approach to one of the giants of classical philosophy, and she succeeds brilliantly.’ Guardian

‘Harvey's dense, unhurried prose is rich in characterisation and intellectual reasoning. The plot picks up pace when one of William's followers burns down a public library, citing William as his motivation. In an echo of Socrates's trial, William's commitment to his paradoxical ideology is played out publicly, shadowed with potential devastation for the whole family. This beautifully written composition does that rare thing, of provoking free thought while scrutinising the far-reaching repercussions of such a rebellious activity.’ Independent

Evocative and frequently luminous […] [there is] something compelling in the way Harvey resists the easy and the obvious. The result is a novel of both depth and defiance.’ Guardian

‘Samantha Harvey is an audacious writer. The subject of her Booker longlisted debut novel, The Wilderness, was dementia; in her second, All is Song, she looks at the role of philosophy in ordinary life. If that sounds tedious, it isn’t: All is Song is as much about family relationships as it is a novel of ideas. […] Its small cast is compelling. Harvey’s talent is in the details of both characters and relationships that seem trivial but are telling […] [she] is a master of language, adept at both Wildean one-liners and more profound expression.’ Evening Standard

Praise for THE WILDERNESS (2010):

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2009; Shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2009;Shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2009; Winner of the Betty Trask Award for a First Novel 2009; Winner of the AMI Literature Award 2009; Named by The Culture Show as one of the 12 Best New British Novelists

‘[In this] exquisite first novel […] which is narrated by a man who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, Harvey explores the strange elasticity of time, and our relation to it: how we might carelessly let years go by without self-assertion or resistance; how we wantonly reshape the past; how we live too much in the past (and yet never enough to satisfy us, because it has so painfully gone.)’ James Wood, New Yorker

‘Samantha Harvey barely puts a foot wrong in telling this crushing tale. It is a piece of literature seamlessly woven from extremely controlled prose, and peppered with vivid images that are recalled with haiku-like clarity. Harvey conjures both atmosphere and beauty, but the impact of this novel comes from its merciless portrayal of dementia. […] Given the unavoidable nature of his progress and the almost unbearable coda Jake's confusion reaches, this could easily have been a depressing read, but a certain levity is maintained throughout. The lucidity with which characters from Jake's past are evoked gives them a kind of fabulous immortality. At its heart, The Wilderness is a seemingly disconnected collection of the narratives that constitute the essence of Jake's life. But it manages to be much more than this: a forensic examination of loss and misunderstanding, a paean to the vital force of stories, and an incredibly moving look at a sword of Damocles that hangs over us all.’ Tom Webber, Guardian

‘[An] accomplished debut […] The lyrical power of these shifting and competing narratives is matched by the absolute emotional realism of Jake’s own desperate plight: his shame and anger and impotence are devastatingly recorded. And yet this is not a depressing novel, but rather one so full of urgent life that it rouses even as it terrifies.’ Olivia Laing, Observer ‘Paperback of the Week’

‘In the glut of novels being published at the moment a really exciting debut is as rare as it ever was. Samantha Harvey's first novel is an extraordinary dramatisation of a mind in the process of disintegration. Jake, 65, is an architect with Alzheimer's, and his memories lie around him in puzzling fragments. He knows that he designed the prison, and that his son is an inmate, but he can't remember why. He can't recall what happened to his daughter, or his wife. He doesn't know which of his memories are real, but some are intact, and Harvey uses these to build a picture of Jake's history. Brilliant - read it now, before it scoops up all the prizes.’ Kate Saunders, The Times

‘[A] brave imagining […] written by a first-time novelist with the steadiest of hands. […] Every life is a mystery, Harvey seems to be saying, even to the one whose life it is. Solve it any way you will.’ New York Times

The Wilderness bills itself as a novel about a man who's losing his mind to Alzheimer's, but it's far more -- or less -- than that. It's closer to Virginia Woolf's meditative novels than anything else I can think of.’ Washington Post

‘[An] astonishingly accomplished first novel […] Harvey skilfully lets the small mysteries of a life of medium tragedies and temporary recompenses unfold for us in a succession of satisfying epiphanies […] Harvey pulls off the most moving dream sequence I've ever read […] I can't describe it, or even characterize it, without ruining it. […] I salute, as well, her true and deeply sad insight that often the things we most want only come to us when they're no longer wanted; and that sometimes the most important truths can only be faced when we no longer recognize what we're facing. Yes, this is a sad book; exquisitely and wisely sad, and therefore a sombre joy to read. What is best about it is that hardest of all things to capture on a dust jacket: acutely observed characters living lives of convincing ordinariness, all of which makes fresh to the reader once again the truth that one individual's particular life just happens to be the perfect stage for dramatizing the universal (with its attendant agony) of each and every conscious life [...] Harvey's novel argues with quiet and convincing force that all of us, when we leave the home of the womb, set up our temporary tents, for life, on the edge of a wilderness.’ Barnes and Noble

 

 

Fiction

Publication DetailsNotes
2018

Jonathan Cape

Oakham, near Bruton, is a tiny village by a big river without a bridge. When a man is swept away by the river in the early hours of Shrove Saturday, an explanation has to be found. Was it murder, or suicide, or an accident? The whole story is relayed by the village priest, John Reve, who in his role as confessor is privy to a lot of information that others have not. But will he be able to explain what happened to the victim, Tom Newman, the wealthiest, most capable and industrious man in the village? And what will happen if he can’t?
Reve is an extraordinary creation, a patient shepherd to his wayward flock, and through his words Harvey creates a medieval world that is in no way alien but almost tangible in its immediacy. His language is modern, but steeped in medieval culture and beliefs.
This is Samantha Harvey’s fourth novel. The previous three appeared on countless prize lists, from the Women’s Prize to the Man Booker. The Western Wind will surely join them.

2014

Jonathan Cape

In the middle of a winter's night, a woman wraps herself in a blanket, picks up a pen and starts writing to an estranged friend. In answer to a question you asked a long time ago, she writes, and so begins a letter that calls up a shared past both women have preferred to forget.

Without knowing if her friend, Butterfly, is even alive or dead, she writes night after night - a letter of friendship that turns into something more revealing and recriminating. By turns a belated outlet of rage, an act of self-defence, and an offering of forgiveness, the letter revisits a betrayal that happened a decade and a half before, and dissects what is left of a friendship caught between the forces of hatred and love. Longlisted for the Fiction Uncovered Prize and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2015.

2012

Jonathan Cape

Set against the backdrop of growing national unrest, tabloid frenzies and an escalating fuel crisis, All Is Song is a novel about filial and moral duty, and about the choice of questioning above conforming. It is a work of remarkable perception, intensity and resonance from one of Britain’s most promising young writers.

2010

Jonathan Cape

This astonishing debut novel depicts the desperate struggle of Jake, an Alzheimer''s sufferer, to piece together his few remaining memories. He has many important questions left to answer, but as the disease takes hold and his identity slips away, the concrete facts of his past life become increasingly remote. Can anything be salvaged, in any form, from his deteriorating mind?

Winner of the Betty Trask Prize. Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Shortlisted for the Orange Prize and Guardian First Book Award.