In an odd way I’m quite fond of stories about plague. The historical period (mid 1300s) is one I’m interested in (and have been known to do a bit of peasanting in that general era) and I did go through a phase of reading up on the history of diseases (books like Guns, Germs and Steel fascinated me). And, of course, one of my favourite books of all time has a delightfully bubonic setting. It’s not weird to be so interested in disease, is it? Oh well, even if it is I am drawn to books which explore how people cope with deadly illnesses beyond their control (or, indeed, understanding). Maybe it is the result of my impressively cast-iron immune system…?
Karen Maitland’s latest, the Plague Charmer, is set firmly in the middle of an outbreak in 1361. The people of Porlock Weir in Devon are just recovering from the last wave of the disease thirteen years previously but we soon see how society has been weakened by repeated bouts of sickness – fear, superstition and the need to find out who has brought the plague down on them (through sin, probably) run right the way through the novel. As the story opens a mysterious woman in pulled, more dead than alive, from the sea. She lives but informs the villagers that the plague is coming: not only that, but she can save them from harm if one person will willingly give up their life. They refuse and, almost immediately, the bodies of two children are washed up in the harbour – too late the villagers realise that the children are victims of plague rather than drowning and then the true horror begins. Neighbours turn on each other, with some truly gruesome scenes where families with infected members are sealed into their houses to survive as best they can. Some turn to religion (although the nearest priest is more keen to hide away than to face the suffering in Porlock Weir), others to what seems like madness but a few decide to seek out the mystery woman and to offer up a life in the hope of turning back the tide of death.
There is an impressive range of characters in this book – a malicious busybody with strange religious leanings, a woman made desperate by the loss of her husband and sons, a young girl who must hide a secret from her husband’s family, a group led by a charismatic figure which could be seen as a sort of cult and Will, who was made rather than born as a dwarf. Their stories entwine with each other’s and also with that of Janiveer, the plague charmer herself, until the threads combine to create a dramatic ending. You could read this as a fantasy novel – there are certainly fantastical elements in there – but I prefer to see it as historical fiction: after all, the facts of history can be every bit as unusual as the most complex of fantasies.