I read and loved THE MERCIES, which was my first introduction to Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s work. THE DANCE TREE is similar in tone and themes to THE MERCIES, and I can’t wait to have them next to each other on my shelves. I think I might like THE DANCE TREE even more than THE MERCIES, which is saying something – THE MERCIES was previously my favourite historical fiction ever.
Thanks to Picador for the eARC of this book. It has not affected my honest review.
About the book:
Strasbourg, 1518. In the midst of a blisteringly hot summer, a lone woman begins to dance in the city square. She dances for days without pause or rest, and as she is joined by hundreds of others, the authorities declare an emergency.
Just beyond the city’s limits, pregnant Lisbet lives with her mother-in-law and husband, tending the bees that are their livelihood. And then, as the dancing plague gathers momentum, Lisbet’s sister-in-law Nethe returns from seven years’ penance in the mountains for a crime no one will name.
It is a secret that Lisbet is determined to uncover. As the city buckles under the beat of a thousand feet, she finds herself thrust into a dangerous web of deceit and clandestine passion, but she is dancing to a dangerous tune . . .
What did I think?
THE DANCE TREE has Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s incredibly beautiful prose, with gorgeous descriptions that flow so easily it’s impossible to put down. This book stands out because there is so much personal experience packed into the tale. The author has been very open with her family’s struggles with pregnancy loss, and that’s a key part of Lisbet’s story. Lisbet’s miscarriages are a hugely significant part of her life and it influences her every day. It’s heartbreaking to read the way she’s forced to grieve silently for her lost children, and it’s so clear that Kiran Millwood Hargrave here is writing her experiences into Lisbet’s life. It makes for a powerful read, emotional and raw, and I could feel Lisbet’s fear and stress as she spends the book more heavily pregnant than she’s ever been before.
I said with THE MERCIES that I loved how character-driven it was, and the same is true of THE DANCE TREE. We have Lisbet, our main character; Agnethe, her newfound sister-in-law; Ida, her best friend; Eren, the musician brought in to help with the dancing plague; and Sophey, the mother-in-law I ended up loving far more than I expected. I fell in love with each and every one of these characters and their relationships, but my favourites were Lisbet and Agnethe. They’ve never met, with Lisbet and Henne marrying after Agnethe was sent away for seven years of penitence, but from the first day they find a sense of kinship and loyalty. I loved the way they behaved together and their conversations, even when they had quiet moments eating side-by-side, I was utterly invested. Between that, and Lisbet and Ida’s close friendship, this book felt like it was celebrating female friendship in its rawest form.
It becomes clear very early in the book that Agnethe’s ‘sin’ is loving another woman, though it takes Lisbet a lot longer to work it out. Agnethe’s story broke my heart. As a lesbian, I wanted so much for her, and there was a section where Agnethe talked about her love – and the way people called it a sin – that made me highlight practically everything she said for several pages. I felt seen in ways I didn’t expect, and every stolen moment of joy that Agnethe found called to every time I’ve talked around my sexuality in my life.
THE DANCE TREE is set against the backdrop of the dancing plague of 1518 in Strasbourg, with brief biographies of the dancing women threaded throughout, but it wasn’t a huge part of the plot really. It was very much focused on Lisbet’s life and her family, but the discussion of the dancing plague felt very carefully researched and well-described. I wasn’t that interested in the short chapters about the other women, so invested in Lisbet’s story, but it did add context to the plague. The whole setting was obviously lovingly researched, and everything from the way that Lisbet handled the bees (rosemary smoke, brilliant) to the intense religious pressure felt by everyone felt like it was authentic and well handled.
The religious trauma in this book is huge, as oppressive and significant as it would have been in Lisbet’s life. Alef Plater – the new Absalom fucking Cornet – is a man power-mad and certain that he speaks the word of god. I hated him. I hated what he stood for, and everything he did, and every time he appeared I felt my stomach drop in the same way I’m sure Lisbet and Agnethe did when they heard his voice.
I absolutely sobbed at the end of this book. It was such a beautiful ending, though it absolutely broke my heart. I might have wanted a slightly different ending, but that was the ending we needed. It was the right ending for the characters, for their arc, and I can’t fault it. But I am very fragile and very gay. I read this all in one long burst, staying in bed until I’d finished it (and afterwards, as I cried all over the cat). I can’t recommend this enough, I’ve loved many of Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s books but this? This is the best yet and I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Release Date: 12th May 2022