In 1491, in the rural English village of Oakham, Pastor John Reve and young Herry Carter discover the body Thomas Newman by the fierce West River. But then his body goes missing. As though possessed by demons, Carter travels up and down the bank in search of the body. John is in a despairing mood; Newman was his friend and a father figure to the villagers. Nothing adds up--no one knows why or how his torn shirt made it onto the rushes, or how his body apparently ended up in the crook of a fallen tree yet hasn't been seen by anybody who can actually prove it.
Determined to solve the mystery, Reve turns to the river for answers while seeking solace in his morning prayers and the confessions of his flock. Grief over Newman's death has made Reve angry and impatient, and he tries not to dream of Newman's body and how savage his death was as he was dragged downstream. Local landowner Robert Tunley might well have been glimpsed Newman but can shed little light on what the man was actually in doing the hours before his death. Also, he wasn't the kind of man who would fall into a river.
The arrival of the rural dean causes another layer of complications. Impatient for answers, the dean tells Reve that he must give the archdeacon more information. Indeed, the entire village will all suffer if they don't solve the mystery behind the vanishing corpse and "the stinking shirt"--Newman's shirt, found in the bulrushes, which Carter is sure "signifies the arms of God." Reve, meanwhile, has the feeling of pure divine waiting: "during Lent, I felt only apprehension and something eager stirring a violent jarring of my senses."
Reve's religious insinuations are essential to the warp and weave of Harvey's novel. Dense as poetry but also light as hair, not a word of Harvey's prose is accidental. Imagery and detail move through the narrative like transparent veils. As the villagers shake in fear at the filthy, mad river and an angry, punishing God who doesn't want that bridge they're trying to build, Reve is on the hunt for a murderer while navigating through Oakham's ancient superstitions. It falls on Reve to be subtle and cunning to hear what the villagers have neglected to say. How did Newman's shirt come off? Did the shirt arrive at that place at the same time as the body, and attached to the body? Nobody trusts Mr. Townshend of Bruton Abbey with his strange fascinations and his wife, Cecily, old and tired from childbearing "but dignified and still beautiful around the eyes."
The novel's parts are elemental: water, wind, sunlight, the river bank, the calf-deep mud that wells with hoof marks. It's hard to reconcile the clumsy fate of a man as a self-possessed as Newman. Reve waits in silence as the universe falls about him and the wild hawthorn comes to bud. The priest has a sense of life that is difficult. Only in his confessional box does he actually feel safe from the constant criticism of the dean, who accuses him of failing to keep a grip on this parish: "you have a village of people who are no better than livestock."
While some readers will find the novel tedious, (it IS a slow read), what makes the story so powerful is its interlocking structure and how Harvey's prose combines and entangles with the lives of the people of Oakham. Watching over them is Pastor Reve, who many see as a light of this heavenly earth, as the ghostly western wind itself haunts much of the action.