Julia Blackburn's first novel, The Book of Color
, revolved around a curse; her second, however, is all about miracles--double-edged though they might be. The narrator is a nameless woman who has recently lost someone she loved. "What she wanted to do now was to bang the door shut on this present time by setting out on a journey to some distant country and staying there until the present had blurred and shifted and become indistinguishable from the past. But that was not possible." A page later, we discover that, indeed, it is. At first, the narrator imagines herself in a nearby village, walking along the sandy beach or visiting the ancient church, its stones covered in lichen. Then, "one night in the month of February, when the east wind was bitterly cold and she felt so sad she didn't know what to do, she found herself going down the main street of the village." Only now the street is rutted with the tracks of carts, the houses are small and battered and the church is newly built--the past has, indeed, become indistinguishable from the present, for now it is the year 1410.
This is the year a mermaid washes up on the beach, bringing with her, apparently, a litany of disaster: a child born with a fish's head, a dead cow, a creeping blindness. In the village there is a woman beset by devils; a blind shoemaker who goes mad when his sight is restored; a leper who is miraculously cured; a young widow who eats a map and is filled with longing for faraway lands. All, including the narrator, eventually embark on a long and arduous pilgrimage to Jerusalem, from which only two will return. The Leper's Companions is beautifully written and its world of wonders is sufficiently rich to keep one turning the pages until the very end. Yet each event seems curiously isolated from all the rest, giving this novel an episodic feel that leaves the reader wishing for a little more substance beneath the beguiling surface. --Alix Wilber
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From Publishers Weekly
Much praised for her elegant writing and originality, British biographer and novelist Blackburn has set a new standard for herself in her exquisite second novel (after The Book of Color). In supple prose, she spins a captivating tale, blending the present-day story of a woman recovering from the loss of someone she loved with the story of a medieval English village. As the novel opens, an unnamed contemporary narrator has found "sanctuary for [her] restless thoughts" in a seaside village, which in her imagination she recreates and repopulates as it must have been more than 500 years ago, in 1410. In the village of her mind dwells a young fisherman, his very young pregnant wife, a shoemaker and his wife, a woman who sees devils, a woman who returns from the dead, a red-haired girl, a red-tongued man and a priest who spends his nights copying out the Book of Revelations. Passing through this village is a leper, knocking his wooden clappers to warn the unsuspecting of his approach. As the narrator imagines them, each of these characters has suffered for love, and their stories could be allegories of love and loss. Magical, even miraculous, things occur in this world saturated with pagan and Christian mythology: a mermaid is washed ashore, a relic (the dried hand of Saint Anthony) saves a life, a blind man regains his sight. In keeping with this spirit, the priest, the shoemaker's wife, the fisherman's wife and the narrator accompany the leper on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, hoping to protect the village from the plague. It is during this journey that the leper's story of lost love, disease and healing emerges. His account quietly harmonizes with the narrator's and ultimately brings resolution to the novel. Perhaps most impressive is Blackburn's keen sympathy for her characters and her sensual evocation of medieval life. While the plot is sometimes digressive and difficult to follow, it's full of satisfying riches. This novel does something quite rare: it takes you someplace new.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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