Perhaps still better known for her hugely popular children’s books, Milwood Hargrave’s debut for adults, The Mercies, was nonetheless an instant bestseller that scooped up several prestigious awards when it was published in 2020. Following in hot pursuit now is her second foray into historical fiction, The Dance Tree, and fans of the first will recognise much of what they enjoyed appearing in this sophomore work.
Set in Strasbourg, in 1518, the fiction is inspired by a dancing plague which historical accounts suggest sent the city into a mania for three months of relentless dancing in the streets. The novel focuses on the pregnant Lisbeth, and the women closest to her, as the repercussions of this frenzy impact upon them in myriad ways as they are pushed to the limits of endurance.
An award-winning poet, the author leans heavily into her poetic instincts on the page in order to produce rich prose that some readers will luxuriate in. Whereas metaphorical language should offer deeper revelation, at times, it does read here as excessively ornamental where style is prioritised over substance. Less description on a surface level and deeper characterisation would have provided greater scope for complexity in the narrative that would have elevated the novel.
Light and shade
That Milwood Hargrave can turn a beautiful sentence isn’t in question, but future work would benefit from the more considered deployment of this talent. Allowing the prose to breathe more would allow for more light and shade, and tonal variation, which would also help with the pacing.
What this novel does deliver with great skill, however, is a lens through which to view this incredibly intriguing phenomenon from history. Exploring themes of motherhood, misogyny, the patriarchy and forbidden love, the author utilises this moment in history as a great catalyst for examining issues that are still central to our contemporary concerns. This interweaving of the past with the present is deftly done with the author’s incredible capacity for empathy illuminating the sensitive topics that the story incorporates.
Overall there is much to recommend The Dance Tree to fans of historical fiction who long for immersion in another world but prefer escapism that provokes further thought about the time and place that we do live in. Milwood-Hargrave delivers on this, and then some.