I received an advance reader’s copy (ARC) of The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Since this version is just a proof and not the final version, I won’t quote directly and will keep my comments general.
In The Dance Tree, it is 1518, and Lisbet is trying to live a quiet life in her small town outside of Strasbourg. She tends her beehives and prays for a successful pregnancy, after years of trying. But her sister-in-law, Agnethe, is returning home after seven years in the mountains paying penance for something unknown to Lisbet. And in the town square, word of a woman overtaken by a hysterical urge to dance reaches Lisbet’s home. Soon, more women are dancing, and the city fears that this is the work of the Devil. But the more Lisbet sees of the dancing women, as well as the more she gets to know Agnethe, she begins to wonder if she can keep her quiet life.
I’ve read another book by this author, and was eager to read her newest work. I will say, though, that I preferred The Mercies to this one.
I liked Lisbet well enough, though I think she wasn’t the most assertive character, kind of letting things just happen around and to her. However, there is something interesting to see from the eyes of a woman who just wants a simple, safe life. And her grief over her multiple failed pregnancies is palpable and framed with empathy (though if this is a topic you’re sensitive to, this might not be the book for you—nothing is graphic, however). Her emotional state frames a lot of the thoughtful, melancholy tone of the book, and I kind of liked that. You really get the sense that you as the reader are only privy to what she is, and it makes for an interesting reading experience.
I also liked the asides in between chapters that were from other point-of-views, though. Each one is from the perspective of a different dancing woman, outlining their experiences and what has led them here. They’re compelling little scenes, and it’s especially fascinating to know that this entire situation is based on a true story.
However, because it’s grounded in a real occurrence, I think this story overall would have benefited from going more into depth about a lot of things. I feel that there wasn’t enough context given about the conflict between the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires that serves as the backdrop to this setting. I had the sense that the author had done a ton of research, but only a tiny fragment made it onto the page. I also wanted a lot more depth to, and time spent with, the characters Agnethe and Ida, as well as Frederick and Eren. I think it would have been nice to get to know all of them more, so that the things they go through have more impact. Because while I felt for them as they faced the discrimination toward queer people or people of color, I also felt like I didn’t know much about them beyond those aspects of their identities.
That is not to say that this is badly written. The writing style is lyrical without being too dependent on purple prose, and the settings are vivid. I just think I wanted more from the characters. Really, I think this should have been longer to fully develop everything. But in the end, The Dance Tree is a decent work of historical fiction, and I appreciated getting to learn about a part of history I hadn’t heard much about. It has a solid emotional foundation of motherhood, grief, and forbidden love, and I had a good time reading it.
The Dance Tree will be published on March 14th, 2023!