This novel takes us to a land blasted by pestilence, as the Black Death casts its dark cloak over Britain. It is hard and harsh mid-winter as Martin, a ‘collyer’ in the Forest of Dean tries to deal with the death of his father, who has passed away without being shrived, or having the absolution of a priest. He cannot look for help in the village of Lysington as the plague has killed everyone else and so Martin is the last man standing.
His only consolation is a carved statue of a saint called Cynryth, a white maiden who appeared in a vision to his father and Martin decides to take it overland to eastern England. The destination is a place called Salter, where the son is intent on creating a shrine for the saint who has saved him and finding a priest who can say mass for his father’s soul.
So Martin loads a cart with possessions and goads his old mare to walk on, setting out on a journey into a country changed in so many ways by the advent of death:
“The next day dawns bright and blue and windless. The ground has opened out into hills and hummocks and I am reminded of the Cotswold country where I lost my way. But chaseland or woods, marsh or manor, one thing is common to every yard of ground we cover: neglect. Crops that should have been harvested last autumn are rotting where they stand, the wheat mould-furred with grey in the damp air. Fallow land is tall with thistles.”
On his way Martin’s life is saved by a man called Hob Cleve, a confident, swaggering, snake-oil salesman who, in the absence of snake-oil, starts to make braids of material to sell as religious artefacts, and when the mare sheds a shoe it becomes a saleable relic, as do the other three shoes. But his glib tongue is only one aspect of his edgy, braggardly character.
As they plod across the landscape Martin begins to fear that as some of the people they encounter die in the night, that this has more to do with his silver-tongued fellow traveller than with any pestilence. The same suspicion is shared by Edmund Abbarow, officer to His Majesty’s Coroner when he examines the odd marks on the body of a parson and he vows to track their journey.
When Hob finds himself in a brutal, twisting wrestling match Martin sees the man’s brutal and overwhelming strength on display, which only serves to deepen his anxiety. As if this wasn’t enough to worry about, Martin also finds himself sleep-walking, as if commanded to do so by demons.
So this trudging walk across a frozen land is far removed from the blessed-ness of pilgrimage, even if they do have a wooden saint in the back of the cart. When the carved hand seems to bless a young girl called Beatrice, and also to talk to her, Hob sees even more ways to turn the needy belief of those they encounter into money, mixing up deception and religion at every opportunity.
One of the practical difficulties of traversing 14th century England is finding the way in the absence of maps and where the knowledge of strangers may not get you very far when the people of one village only know how to get to the next one. There are fords to cross and brigands to avoid, not to mention having to bury some of the dead along the way as Martin shows his kindly, Christian side. On they go, through towns of empty streets, shattered shop-fronts and deserted marketplaces, skirting London.
In the villages of Tredgham and Appledore villagers come out to see the saint, desperate to believe that she has powers to heal and save. By the time the two finally reach the afforested outskirts of Salter, Hob has viciously attacked Martin, breaking his ribs in the process and the novel moves towards what is a fitting, unexpected epiphany to the tale.
This is all told by a natural storyteller – and accomplished charcoal burner to boot – who has a sure gift for driving the story on, sketching in the complexities of the two principal characters and depicting the landscape they cross with the deftest of brushstrokes.
The irony of this novel being published at a time of lockdown will not be lost on the reader, but this remains escapist stuff, shored up by a wealth of historical research on Alis Hawkins’ part and all told, appropriately enough given the novel’s title, in the starkest, sparest black and white on the page.
The Black and the White by Alis Hawkins is published by Sapere Books and can be bought here.