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 . . .
Hi and welcome to my review of The Dance Tree!
After thoroughly enjoying The Mercies, picking up The Dance Tree was a given. I fully expected to enjoy it, I was not prepared for how much I loved it or how much it crept under my skin.
Strasbourg, 1518. A woman starts dancing and can’t seem to stop. She’s not dancing to make a point, or to pester her husband, she just needs to dance: strange though it may be, it’s the only thing that seems to make sense to her.
Meanwhile in the countryside, Lisbet, a heavily pregnant young woman, stands to lose everything as her husband is summoned to a court of sorts to answer the claims that their bees steal from the land. Lisbet remains with her mother-in-law and a sister-in-law who has just returned from a convent where she did penance for a crime nobody wants to talk about.
The days are suffocatingly hot and the nights offer no reprieve. Lisbet is anxious for her baby to be born after having lost so many babies before, her sister-in-law is returning to her “wicked” ways and in the city, more and more women join the first lone dancer. The authorities open guildhalls and call in musicians to keep the dancers going, if there is evil in these women, it must be danced out of them.
The Dance Tree is stunningly evocative. Never overly descriptive, yet you practically feel the heat, the hunger, the desperation of these characters. Speaking of, they are well-rounded and realistic, and there’s a great villainous antagonist to counter the female protagonists, whom I loved for their stubborn streak and their courage and tenacity in the face of adversity.
The Dance Tree is incredibly atmospheric. It’s a story about strength and resilience and searching for peace when and where there is none to be had and at its very heart, it’s a story about love in all shapes and sizes.
I loved how the author incorporated the dancing plague into the fictional story. I learnt about this strange phenomenon in sixteenth century Strasbourg from Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright, which, incidentally, I would highly recommend to non-fiction readers who are interested in the history of plagues and medicine. I loved how true to the factual records The Dance Tree stays, while still moulding the dancing plague into a full-fledged and fascinating story element.
I really came to care for these characters, I was absorbed in their lives, The Dance Tree completely drew me in and I had the best time with it. I would highly recommend it to histfic lovers and it might be just the kind of story to enchant readers who want to dip their toe into the genre.
The Dance Tree is out on 12 May in hardcover, digital formats and audio.
Massive thanks to Picador and NetGalley for the eARC. All opinions are my own.