In Hurdy Gurdy we learn about a fictitious English saint, Odo of Whye, who commanded a couple of handy superpowers. “Prescience” let him see through “the fogs of nowadays” into “far future ages”, while “bilocate” meant that he could be “in two places at once”.
Christopher Wilson’s 10th novel asks for a sort of bilocation from its readers. We have to take his picture of plague-ridden 14th-century England, with its whiffy blend of squalor, scholarship and sensuality, on its own terms. At the same time, Wilson keeps a sly, satirical eye on the present while he follows his teenage hero, Brother Diggory, across a disease-blighted land. That’s where the prescience comes in. St Odo’s book of prophecies, The Great Unhappened, even foresees an “orange-faced king” with “straw-yellow hair” who said that “truths were lies, and lies were truths”.
Both research psychologist and novelist, Wilson in his fiction celebrates young outsiders with eccentric gifts that may prove both a blessing and a curse. Previous books have seen his offbeat heroes struggling to make sense of other strange or dangerous places, from the Deep South, in The Ballad of Lee Cotton, to Stalin’s Russia, in The Zoo. “All my novels are in defence of difference,” he has said, “and my specialist subject has been misfits, outcasts, underdogs, deviants”. Much of his pungent humour stems from skewed perspectives and maverick viewpoints.
Hurdy Gurdy makes you wonder, too, about Wilson’s own clairvoyant powers. Early 2021 feels like both the best, and the worst, moment to publish a picaresque, largely comic, novel set in England from 1349 to 1352, as the Black Death seizes every second person, leaving the country as “a book with half the words missing. We do not make sense any more.”
A travelling priest’s bastard, Diggory has been dumped in ramshackle St Odo’s monastery. Thanks to kindly Brother Fulco, he trains as a surgeon-apothecary, learns the scribal arts, and plays the hurdy gurdy, whose droning tones — his Abbot claims — voice “the eternal battles of mankind” between good and evil, order and chaos. The novel itself reads like a literary version of medieval marginalia, where fantastic and subversive vignettes sprout around the edges of dogma — sketches of “killer-rabbits”, perhaps, “roasting barons on spits, or locking up bishops in hutches”.
Then plague strikes from the south, carried, so the monks believe, on a “miasma” of foul vapours and secreted in “small airborne particles”. Wilson has clever fun with the mingled sense and nonsense of pre-Renaissance science: its mix of robust rationality and fatal, doctrine-driven errors. Diggory does know that the pestilence, with its sweats, aches and erupting “purpled bubbles on the skin”, fells victims from Sicily to Scotland “without prejudice or preference or pause”.
The other Brothers soon perish. Diggory, after a near-death experience and a vision of the grumpy, weary Reaper (“My craft is legend. And my work is never done”), reclaims his birth-name of Jack Fox. He recounts his trail of adventures across the stricken shires. First with hoydenish Cecilia, then strong-willed Faith, he learns about “solid and tangible” women, as opposed to the unclean temptresses painted by “celibate scholars, who had touched upon no skin but vellum”. At every twist in Diggory-Jack’s road, scholastic theory collides with fleshly practice.
He reasons and tricks himself out of a witchcraft trial (a pig, his co-accused, fares worse). He encounters a saintly anchoress, a swindling relic-seller, a radical freethinker who plants the “seed of doubt”. He meets a conga-line of blind men led by their one-eyed king. Wilson’s doodles and detours combine into a high-spirited, richly coloured panorama of High Gothic imagery and ideas, punctuated by flash-forward moments in which Odo foresees modern wonders and terrors, from horseless “metal carts” to “thinking machines” that spew out “lies, riddles and heresies”.
Diggory, both holy fool and shrewd operator, believes that his miraculous survival and medical skills make him “special and chosen”. At the end of his “labyrinth of stories” we will see how much — or how little — he really understands. By then, “The old order is lost” and “We are all mourning”. If our bumptious young healer-monk grabs the last word, Wilson himself has the last laugh. Even in pandemic times, he hints, comedy is the superpower to purge one-eyed, self-deluding humankind.
Hurdy Gurdy, by Christopher Wilson, Faber & Faber, RRP£14.99, 256 pages
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