What a fabulous find! I’d never read any Estonian literature before encountering this book, so naturally I jumped at the chance.
It’s the late 1690s, and Laurentius Hylas, accompanied only by his parakeet Clodia, has come from Lieden, where he ran into trouble at the university there for his unusual views, to the University of Dorpat (Tartu). But the difficult journey weakens both of them, and Laurentius falls into the illness he is prey to, while Clodia dies and is eaten by a starving tramp. But is she then reborn, perhaps as a young woman? What is the strange stench haunting Laurentius, and why do the peasants fear him? And most of all, why are dead creatures coming back to life around him?
“The Willow King” is neither suspense, horror, fantasy, or historical fiction, combining aspects of all those genres. The basic story is grounded in recognizable historical facts: the state of the Swedish Empire in the late 17th century, the University of Dorpat and its move to Parnu following the famines of the 1690s, the ideas of philosophers such as Descartes that were circulating at the time. A good deal of the plot is also about the development of modern medicine: Laurentius, who has suffered from a chronic illness for some time, takes a tincture of willow bark to ease the flares of fever; meanwhile, his mentors recommend bloodletting and aurum potabile as better cures. There’s a strong yet natural dramatic irony in those scenes: the modern reader is aware that willow bark produces aspirin, which can indeed lower a fever, while bloodletting and drinking gold are no longer practiced. But Laurentius doesn’t know this, and, instead of instantly leaping at what the modern readers knows is the “correct” choice, is in a state of very realistic confusion over what to do. [And I have to say, as someone who also has a chronic illness, that things have not changed so very much: people, including doctors, are constantly suggesting painkillers, cleanses, and colloidal silver to me–the willow bark, bloodletting, and aurum potabile of our time). The treatment of these scenes both allows the reader to be inside of Laurentius’s 17th-century head, while still appreciating things from a 21st-century perspective.
The writing is both pithy and atmospheric, conveying the mood of a damp, chilly, and hungry 17th century while still being extremely readable for the modern reader–indeed, this is a surprisingly short and quick read, for all the potential heaviness of its subject matter. The story walks the line between fantasy and the fantastique, as there is a strong suggestion that supernatural events take place, but whether they “really” do is an open question. The title itself partakes in this ambiguity: does it refer to the local peasant epithet for the devil, or to Laurentius himself, who, in keeping with modern science, uses willow to cure fevers? Or are they one and the same? A tantalizing and eminently readable story, perfect for those of us who want to get our feet wet in the chilly waters of Baltic fiction.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.