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It has been about ten years since Minette Walters published her last full-length novel of psychological suspense. Indeed, she even announced that she had retired from a life of crime. What she has been doing this past decade is researching and writing a fictional work about the Black Plague, which first came to England in 1348, to Weymouth in Dorset, not far from Walters' own present home. The result is a two-volume historical novel, the first part of which, THE LAST HOURS, is set in the manor of Develish and its neighbouring villages and stars two strong protagonists, Lady Anne, wife to the lord of the manor, Sir Richard, and Thaddeus Thurkell, the bastard child of the wife of a serf.
Lady Anne is not yet thirty, but, both fully adult and competent, she seems older. She was convent-educated, clearly by a prioress far more intelligent and sensible than Chaucer's. Among much else, she was taught the importance both of cleanliness and of isolating the sick from the well. As a result, the men of Develish have learned not to relieve themselves where they stand but to use the latrines that were dug under her supervision. Because the sick were separated from the well, children survived much more frequently than they had before she came to the manor. In general, if unwittingly, the manor and its residents were better prepared than most to withstand the ravages of the plague, even if no one really knew what they were doing to avoid its toll.
It was, however, Lady Anne's character and fundamental sense that convinced the serfs to follow her direction. Her life experience has made her strong and unsentimentally clear-eyed. She is, perhaps a bit anachronistically, a believer in reason. Whether she believes in God or not is a private matter. If she ever had any romantic illusions about life as the lady of a manor, her marriage to Sir Richard when she was fourteen quickly disabused her of them. But as she discovered that her husband was monumentally thick and savagely cruel she found ways to circumvent him and, without his really ever being aware of it, to exercise her authority over the serfs, displacing his. Happily, he was too lazy ever to learn to read, a task he left to his wife, who found out a great deal that he would rather she never knew. The couple have a daughter, Lady Eleanor, a spiteful fourteen-year-old who appears to have inherited a full measure of her father's stupidity and selfishness and to have learned nothing at all from her mother, whom she hates.
Thaddeus Thurkull is an anomaly. Tall, dark-skinned, he looks nothing like the flaxen-haired Saxons, his fellow serfs. His "father" is short, squat, and dull and hates Thaddeus because he is clearly not his son, but mostly because he is much cleverer than the rest of the family. When Sir Richard and a small entourage set off for a neighbouring manor to arrange his daughter's marriage, it is to Thaddeus that Lady Anne turns for support in running things at home. While Sir Richard is away news of the outbreak of a mysterious disease arrives and Lady Anne, relying on her convent training, shuts Develish off from the rest of the world, protected by its moat and walls. Even Sir Richard is denied entry unless he can demonstrate that he is not infected, but he is and he and most of his company die.
In time, the narrative divides between Lady Anne's struggles at home, especially with her daughter, and Thaddeus' foray, along with a group of teen-aged boys, into the devastated world beyond the walls to find supplies to keep the manor residents going. There are some vivid descriptions of the devastation the plague has wrought, but they are relatively few - this novel develops differently to the standard dystopian post-disaster scenario as it is essentially a political work rather than an action thriller.
Thaddeus, like Lady Anne, is a modern man of reason. Some readers might object that both characters are anachronistic in their rejection of the absolute limitations of caste and class, but in fact, the plague itself was responsible over time for the destruction of the feudal class system and the emergence of free labour. With up to fifty percent of the population dead (and locally far more), the old bonds of fealty could not hold. Lady Anne and Thaddeus are simply unusually happy to see them gone, but they do have their reasons. It is in this regard that the book struck me as essentially hopeful. The disaster that was the plague is devastating but out of it would come the possibility for a better world, a possibility in this case at least imagined as the result of cooperative effort, not, as is more frequent in contemporary dystopias, of individual, personal action.
There is one warning, however, that I have to make. As fascinating as this book is, it is not complete. There is another to come and Walters does something quite strange at the end. Instead of offering an interim resolution before volume II appears, the narrative simply stops. It is as though the book breaks off in mid-chapter. Some readers, I imagine, will be rather cross at being left in the air. I was, but I got over it. I did because Walters has done here what she has so often done in the past - opened a new direction in an established genre - one that viewed from the perspective of the fracturing certainties of our present world, at least provides some comfort.
§ Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal. She's been editing RTE since 2008.
Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2018
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