Review

The ‘dancing plague’ of 1518 was stranger than fiction – can a novel do it justice?

2/5

Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s new novel The Dance Tree is inspired by a fatal dancing frenzy that struck 16th-century Strasbourg

The Dance Tree is Kiran Millwood Hargrave's second novel for adults Credit: Tom de Freston/Picador

One day in 1518, a woman started to dance in Strasbourg city square; soon, hundreds more joined her under the summer sun. The dancing went on for weeks, to the ire of the authorities. By some accounts, several women died of exhaustion every day.

The “dancing plague” remains unexplained, and invites any number of interpretations: call it a tale about religious fervour, or crowd madness.

In Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Dance Tree, these historic events frame the story of Lisbet, a young woman beset by woes: a series of stillbirths, a tyrannical mother-in-law, and now the return of Agnethe, her sister-in-law, who has spent six years in a nunnery on account of a mysterious sin.

Beyond these troubled relationships, the women are stifled by male power, from violent husbands to a repressive elite – meaning that when their dance begins, it has the air of a freedom cry.

This is Hargrave’s second novel for adults, after six award-winning children’s books, though like 2020’s The Mercies, about a 17th-century witch hunt, it doesn’t quite bridge the gap.

It has that familiar Young Adult patness, as if most of its characters had been drawn with a marker pen. Lisbet is a nest of conflict, but from her mother-in-law to the local hardman, the rest are caricatures. The dialogue is anguished but gnomic; information is delivered in slabs.

The clumsiness is a pity, since Lisbet’s interior life is well painted, as are those of the individual dancers whom we meet in interludes. In an afterword, Hargrave recommends A Time to Dance, A Time to Die (2008), John Waller’s study of the Strasbourg events, on which The Dance Tree liberally draws. I’d second her recommendation: the fiction can’t match the facts.


The Dance Tree is published by Picador at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk