Publication Date: 12th May 2022
This book is my first Kiran Millwood Hargrave, god knows why I haven’t read The Mercies up to this point! I haven’t picked up much historical fiction for a while but can truly say that if you only pick up one historical fiction book this year make it The Dance Tree.
It’s 1518 and a blisteringly oppressive summer heat in Strasbourg. Crops are failing and animals are sweltering and people are starving. One day, a woman named Frau Troffea starts dancing in the heat of the dry and dusty city square and keeps up the dancing for days on end. Being forced home briefly by her husband to sleep for an hour before heading back out to dance. Amongst her audience are members of the council know as The Twenty One. This lone woman has caught their attention and her dancing is considered a religious mania.
But soon there are more feet added to dance as more and more women join in until there are hundreds of women seemingly taken over by this dancing hysteria.
On the outskirts of the city Lisbet a bee-keeper lives with her brusque mother-in-law, her husband and his sister who has recently returned from a 7 year penance deep in the mountains, for an untold crime. Lisbet is pregnant with her 13th child, having lost all of her previous babies at various points in her pregnancies. When the families farm is threatened so is their livelihood and Lisbet’s precious bees who have long since been a source of salvation for her are potentially going to be removed from her life.
As the heat continues to beat down on the city and more and more women are added to the dance Lisbet finds herself desperate to uncover secrets but also protect the things she holds dear.
I love a novel that centres around an actual point or event in history and uses that as a springboard for some amazing fiction. I found the authors note from Kiran Millwood Hargrave fascinating as she talks about the real life Frau Troffea who did indeed start dancing one day in Strasbourg and didn’t stop. Indeed there are apparently various points in history where choreomania (yes that’s what it’s called!) have occurred, each time religious mania is cited as the reason.
This book doesn’t just deal with the dancing event it is essentially a close look at the lives of three women and the bonds they have with each other and how they have been repressed at the hands of men in a patriarchal society. I loved the rich tapestry of historical detail and felt fully immersed in the narrative, building up a clear picture of each scene as it played out.
We are not only given the protagonists main narrative we are also treated to short interspersing chapters introducing us to selected women who have joined the dance and the painful reasons why. I really found this to be such an emotional touch.
Kiran’s writing is just stunning and her scene setting and character development are some of the best I’ve ever read. This is a book of love, superstition, folklore and power and I cannot recommend it enough. In fact I think I’ll be bold and say it will be one of my books of the year. Now If you’ll excuse me I’m off to pick up a copy of The Mercies immediately!
Thank you to Kate Green and Picador for my review copy.
See you all soon.
Amanda. Xx @bookishchat