Having enjoyed Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s previous book, The Mercies, I was looking forward to reading more of her work. This new novel, The Dance Tree, sounded very different, but equally intriguing. It’s set in 16th century Strasbourg during a plague of dancing – yes, dancing, which sounds harmless but, as the novel shows, is anything but.
The Dance Tree begins in 1518 and introduces us to Lisbet, a young pregnant woman, who lives with her husband and mother-in-law. Lisbet has already lost several babies and is determined to carry this one to full term; while her pregnancy advances she finds comfort in looking after the bees that provide the family’s livelihood and visiting the tree she has decorated in memory of her lost children. One day, Lisbet’s sister-in-law, Agnethe, comes home from the nunnery where she has been doing penance for the last seven years; Lisbet has no idea what the sin was that resulted in Agnethe being sent away, but she does know that her return has changed the dynamics within the household and that life will not be quite the same again.
Meanwhile, in the centre of Strasbourg, Frau Troffea walks into a market square, lifts up her hands and begins to dance. She is soon joined by more women…and more…and more, all of them dancing until the soles of their feet bleed. As the women continue to dance day after day – a desperate, frenzied dance that shows no sign of coming to an end – the authorities try to bring them under control, without success.
I knew nothing about the dancing plague before reading this book, so I found that aspect of the novel fascinating. Many theories have been put forward over the years to explain why the women danced, ranging from demonic possession or religious trance to ergot poisoning or mass hysteria. Even today, historians don’t know for sure what was behind the epidemic, but to help us understand some of the possible reasons, Kiran Millwood Hargrave provides back stories for some of the individual dancers. These stories are presented as brief chapters interspersed between Lisbet’s chapters, and although I thought they could have been better integrated into the novel as a whole, they were interesting to read.
I liked Lisbet and had a lot of sympathy for her situation, and also for her best friend, Ida, who is married to a controlling bully who belongs to the ‘Twenty One’, the group of men who rule the city. Agnethe is another intriguing character, although I found the reason for her seven-year penance too easy to guess. However, despite finding the characters interesting, I didn’t manage to form the deep emotional connection with any of them that I would have liked. I’m not sure why this should be, because Hargrave does write beautifully, except that I often find the use of present tense very distancing and I think that was the case here.
Although I didn’t love this book as much as I hoped, I would recommend Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s books to readers interested in historical fiction dealing with women’s lives in unusual settings and circumstances – in this book, the Strasbourg dancing plague, and in The Mercies, the witch trials on the Norwegian island of Vardø.
Thanks to Picador for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
This is book 22/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.