Friday, June 19, 2020

BOOK REVIEW: To Calais, in Ordinary Time by James Meek

James Meek is a difficult writer to read. I recently reviewed The People’s Act of Love and, although I struggled with the awfulness of the characters, it’s a story that stayed with me.

His current book, To Calais, in Ordinary Time, is another historical novel that is hard to read but rewarding to have read. Set in the fourteenth century during the Black Death, it’s particularly disturbing to tackle during the pandemic. The degree of superstition, denial, resignation, and grief feels suitable to the Middle Ages, which makes its parallels to today even more frightening and sad.

There are three protagonists, all starting from England where the plague is, initially, simply a rumor, who are heading to Calais for various reasons. In France, the plague is a deadly reality. As the protagonists move toward the disease, it comes to meet them.

Lady Bernadine is a young gentlewoman who is fleeing a marriage to an old man. The marriage was arranged by her widowed father who wants to exchange his daughter for that of his friend. Thus both old men can have pretty young wives. Berna, who yearns to model her life after the Romance, Roman de la Rose, was previously courted by a handsome young lord named Laurence Hacket. He asked for her hand, was refused, and left for his own estate near Calais–much to Berna’s chagrin. Since it didn’t occur to him to carry her off, she has decided to pursue him.

There is a young ploughman from the same village, Will Quate, who is in an uncomfortable half-free, half-serf position, whose greatest wish is to have his freedom recognized by the lord. To that end, he has trained as a bowman and has earned the chance to represent his lord by helping to garrison Calais. He leaves behind his betrothed, the village beauty, to whom he is not particularly attached. Along the way, he joins a band of archers who are every bit as awful as the soldiers in The People’s Act of Love.

Finally, there is a Scots proctor, schooled in Avignon, who is being sent back to France by his superiors. He will accompany the archers as a substitute for a priest, even though he insists he is not truly a priest and not qualified to hear confession or give last rites. (He hears quite a bit of confession.)

Even though the protagonists travel together, each a product of their time and place, they may as well be from different worlds. The author gives them each unique voices that add to the feeling of immersion into the fourteenth century. In many ways, they are as foreign to each other and unable to comprehend one another’s world views as they are foreign to the reader.

Ideas about war, sex, right and wrong, religion, and impending death are explored from the different perspectives of the protagonists and the characters they interact with. It’s fascinating to see how lines are blurred.

The novel is a slow read at first, but the tension builds. Even though I found the characters hard to like, it was still tragic to watch as the plague inexorably did its work.