Book Review: The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

About the Book:

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 town 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.

Published by Pan Macmillan Australia – Picador

Released 10th May 2022

My Thoughts:

I was captivated by Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first novel, The Mercies, and again, she has held me spellbound with this one, The Dance Tree.

‘She’d recognised it instantly for what it was: a dance tree. A doom tree. A relic of the pagans who had their churches open under God.’

The Dance Tree is a novel based on history, specifically this:

‘Between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, dancing plagues, or choreomania, occurred regularly.

…one of the most popular explanations, both now and then, was a religious mania.’ – Author note.

The author goes into more detail of course in her author note, even providing the name of the first woman that started the dancing plague upon which this story is based, but suffice to say, once again, I have been introduced, through fiction, to a history that I previously knew nothing about.

‘Why do you think those women dance? Because there is no earthly way to be saved. You and Mutter have told me enough times – Strasbourg is sliding Hellwards. And we women, we bear the brunt. We are bred or banished, and always, always damned. Prayers cannot help us, the priests will not help us. Your babies were never blessed, so they were damned. It is not right, that is the unnatural act, not this.’

The Dance Tree is an empowering story of female agency, female friendship, and enduring love. There is an urgency to the story that reaches out from the pages. The mania of the dancing plague, the even stronger fervour of control from the men who considered themselves in charge of stopping it; Lisbet’s own desperation and heartache to finally bring a pregnancy to term and have a live birth; Nethe’s penance and devotion to following her heart; Ida’s devastating sacrifice – all this is entwined and plays out on a personal level for these characters against a background of a community at breaking point.

I particularly loved the way the author combined the religious intensity of the era with that of the mysticism that still lingered throughout society. It was interesting to see how people attempted to understand and control the mystic with religion – now, we can see scientific explanations for the climate issues and even the choreomania, but such knowledge was not available to people in the sixteenth century, hence, religion was all they had to rely upon.

I highly recommend The Dance Tree. I thought it was brilliant, captivating, and deeply moving.


Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Dance Tree by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

  1. I’ll have to look out for this, I enjoyed The Mercies and her YA book The Girl of Ink and Stars, so I’m inclined to think I’ll probably enjoy this too.

    Liked by 1 person

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