Love, forbidden love, grief for unborn children, and a dancing plague that struck the women of Strasbourg in 1518, this is a stirring, lyrical triumph.
Inspired by an extraordinary historic phenomena that saw the women of Strasbourg infected with a dancing plague in 1518, Kiran Millwood Hargraves’ The Dance Tree captivates and charms as it lays bare insights into “a mass religious trance instigated by the unique pressures and beliefs of the time”, as the author explains in her afterword.
Taking in grief for unborn children, and prejudice against outsiders and same-sex love, it’s a beautifully-written story about individuals seeking safe spaces to be themselves in a hostile, limiting age.
Pregnant for the thirteenth time, bee-keeper Lisbet lives outside Strasbourg with her husband and mother-in-law, and the support of her friend Ida. Still grieving for her twelve children who didn’t survive to full-term, Lisbet “loves each lost child though they are not here”, and honours them with the dance tree she’s made in the woods — the tree is adorned with ribbons for each of her losses.
Then, against a viscerally-evoked backdrop of searing heat (“the certain descent of Strasbourg into another circle of hell”), Lisbet’s sister-in-law Nethe returns from being exiled to the mountains as punishment for an unknown crime. Under the patriarchal gaze of the Twenty-One who govern the city, a woman driven to a dancing frenzy is joined by dozens more dancers, “loose-haired and wide-eyed”, moaning, radiant and whirling with bloodied feet. The Twenty-One bring in musicians, hoping to “play out the devils”. Two of them board with Lisbet, with Eren the Turkish lute player stirring her in body and soul.
As the dance plague intensifies, we learn of women who are punished for loving each other, for their “love as deep and natural as the roots we walk on”. At the same time, Lisbet, Ida and Nethe share secrets and become “bonded tight as roots in earth”, with the dance tree poignantly marking their safe space, anchoring them just as it seems the world is crumbling.
By turns fascinating, exhilarating and moving, this beautiful novel dances and whirls to its own distinctive tune, and gives fine voice to characters who will capture readers’ hearts.
In Strasbourg, in the boiling hot summer of 1518, a plague strikes the women of the city. First it is just one – a lone figure, dancing in the main square – but she is joined by more and more and the city authorities declare an emergency. Musicians will be brought in. The devil will be danced out of these women.
Just beyond the city’s limits, pregnant Lisbet lives with her mother-in-law and husband, tending the bees that are their livelihood. Her best friend Ida visits regularly and Lisbet is so looking forward to sharing life and motherhood with her. And then, just as the first woman begins to dance in the city, Lisbet’s sister-in-law Nethe returns from six years’ penance in the mountains for an unknown crime. No one – not even Ida – will tell Lisbet what Nethe did all those years ago, and Nethe herself will not speak a word about it.
It is the beginning of a few weeks that will change everything for Lisbet – her understanding of what it is to love and be loved, and her determination to survive at all costs for the baby she is carrying. Lisbet and Nethe and Ida soon find themselves pushing at the boundaries of their existence – but they’re dancing to a dangerous tune . . .
|Publication date:||12th May 2022|
|Author:||Kiran Millwood Hargrave|
|Publisher:||Picador an imprint of Pan Macmillan|
|Primary Genre||Historical Fiction|