‘To Calais, in Ordinary Time’ by James Meek

2019, 382 p.

I have only read one other James Meek novel, The People’s Act of Love, although I’ve often seen his articles in the London Review of Books. I read The People’s Act of Love before I started blogging. It was set during the Russian Civil War that followed the Revolution – a time when fortunes and allegiances shifted in response to the global political situation, and when loyalty and survival were pitted against each other. Meek’s most recent book To Calais, in Ordinary Time is likewise set in 1348, a time of political flux, but this time politics is rendered hollow by the threat of plague. This book was published in 2019, before our own world was to face its own plague, and to read it in 2022 is to find resonances of which the author would have been unconscious, as the plague is at first just a rumour, dismissed, politicized or seen as divine intervention. But by the end of the book, the plague dominates, throwing into question social distinctions, faith, and the nature of commitment.

The book involves a journey from South-West London to Calais, two years after the battle of Crecy where a group of archers under Edward III routed a larger French army and went on to capture Calais. A band of battle-hardened archers is gathered together by knight Laurence Haket to return to Calais, and young serf Will Quate is nominated by his liege lord to join them. The other archers, led by Hayne, had been involved in the sack of Crecy two years earlier and had taken captive French noblewoman Cess, who was forced to accompany them back to England. Now they are heading back to Calais again, and they are joined by Lady Bernardine, Wills’ master’s daughter who is escaping an arranged marriage to an older man; Thomas, a clerical administrator on secondment to an abbey who, while not an actual priest, is steeped in the church; and Hab, a swineherd with desires of his own. While they are heading to France, the plague is heading towards them.

The narrative is told in different voices. The cleric Thomas writes his first-person narrative on parchment, in a high, intellectual tone; while the third-person narrative depicts Lady Bernardine as speaking in a lofty, French-inflected language. Will, Hab and the archers, on the other hand are depicted as speaking a form of dialect : not quite Chaucer, but with many unfamiliar words (‘neb’ for face; ‘steve’ for voice) and a curious sentence-construction. Meek sustained this well throughout the book, although I confess that it often tangled my reading.

What I found most confusing, though, was the names. Hab (the swineherd) is very similar to Mad (one of the archers); Mad (the archer) is very similar to Madlen (Hab’s ‘sister’); Hayne (the leader of the bowmen) is very similar to Haket (the knight). Add to this abbreviations (Cess for Cecily; Berna for Lady Bernardine), some gender-bending, and a play within in a story- and I didn’t know where I was for much of the book. In a way, my own confusion mirrored the other-worldliness and the unfamiliarity of the 14th century setting. It did resolve, particularly as the plague set in and different characters dropped away.

In her blurb for the book, Hilary Mantel wrote:

Fans of intelligent historical fiction will be enthralled by a story so original and so fully imagined. Meek shows the era as alien, which it is, and doesn’t falsify it by assimilating it to ours. But his characters are recognisably warm and human.

I confess that I found myself wondering if I was “intelligent” enough for this book, because I did find it challenging. But as Mantel points out, Meek has created a world on its own terms, with disorienting little twists, that reinforces that his characters are not just ‘us in funny clothes’ and he sustains this across the whole book. And, by chance, we bring to this 14th century world our own 21st world view of plague which, for me, only enhanced the book further. It’s a remarkable- but challenging- book.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5/10 (….eventually….)

2 responses to “‘To Calais, in Ordinary Time’ by James Meek

  1. Many years ago I read The People’s Act of Love and very much enjoyed it. I also read it before I started my current blog- 2011. This sounds quite good, too, although I get more easily confused these days. If I’m enjoying a book I’ll start over.

    • I think we read The People’s Act of Love together in one of the online bookclubs, perhaps, because I read it a few years ago too (back in 2007).

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