REVIEW: To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek
Three journeys. One road.
England, 1348. A gentlewoman flees an odious arranged marriage, a Scots proctor sets out for Avignon, and a young plowman in search of freedom is on his way to volunteer with a company of archers. All come together on the road to Calais.
Coming in their direction from across the English Channel is the Black Death, the plague that will wipe out half of the population of Northern Europe. As the journey unfolds, overshadowed by the archers’ past misdeeds and clerical warnings of the imminent end of the world, the wayfarers must confront the nature of their loves and desires.
A tremendous feat of language and empathy, it summons a medieval world that is at once uncannily plausible, utterly alien, and eerily reflective of our own. James Meek’s extraordinary To Calais, In Ordinary Time is a novel about love, class, faith, loss, gender, and desire—set against one of the biggest cataclysms of human history.
CW – The “past misdeeds” of the archers are to have broken into a home during wartime in France, killed the father and raped his daughter then taken her with them through the battle of Crecy and back to England where she’s been forced to live with a brutish man.
Dear Mr. Meek,
When I got to the last paragraph of the book blurb, I knew I wanted to read this book. One thing I often rail about is the attempt to inject “period” language into historical books which usually amounts to a mayhap and prithee or two. Then there’s the promise of a world that is both alien as well as plausible. The book was offered for review in mid February and it was mid March when I began it. By this time, Covid-19 was spreading and I couldn’t help but – ever so slightly – compare modern times with the world of 14th century Eurasia when no one really knew what was coming or what would happen even the next day. Yet, being honest, I have to say that I wanted to like the book more than I actually did. Some things aren’t totally resolved by the end and after a slow start, things never really picked up even when the plague finally arrived.
The language used in the book goes far beyond just a word or two. Initially I had to read carefully to grasp the meaning of unknown or vaguely understandable things.This required lots of concentration and slowed down my reading speed but kind of tied in with this being a slow journey mainly on foot for the characters. “Ne” means not, “neb” is face, “corven” is carved and “stint” means stop. For most things, I eventually figured it out or remembered what the words reminded me of with only a few I had to look up. But I enjoyed sinking into this world of the English language at the cusp of melding into middle English. It’s not quite the experience of reading the “Canterbury Tales” but it’s a darn sight better than most “medieval” books attempt.
I also appreciated how the world is presented as these characters would know it. People are still bondsmen and bondswomen and have no inkling that, when it’s over, the Black Death will have upended their social status and lead to the end of serfdom. No one thinks this is wrong, merely that some would like to escape this bondage and be free. There are other little things included that illuminate how different this world is such as the way working classes view their own countrymen from other counties as almost foreign to them. The meeting of Will with the King’s-mother is, at times, hilarious as she is staggered that he doesn’t know her name.
A lot of time is spent showing the differences between social classes – also something, for the most part, that is accepted as normal. The language used by the various people shifts between that of the commoners and those of gentle birth. Will and Hab often have to ask the meaning of words (common to us now) that they’ve never heard or had explained to them. Much is made of the differences that are thought (mainly by the aristocrats) to exist between the finer emotions felt by them that the rustic plough man is incapable of grasping or feeling. By the end, when our travelers reach areas stricken by the plague and must survive more on wits and strength, ideas of questioning the status quo drift into the minds of certain characters.
The inequality between genders is explored a bit with one character deciding that it’s far easier to travel as a man than a woman. One other is portrayed as gender fluid with a same sex lover who accepts them. The violated woman has her revenge and on her own terms. The day to day dirt and living conditions are layered into the story without getting too graphic.
Yet despite all that I liked, my attention was wandering by the time the story ended. There is a lot going on here, some of which is left unexplained or ambiguous. I kept mentally tapping my foot, eager for the plague to finally get there. Then there is the conceit of including bits and pieces of the “Romance of the Rose” which I found mostly boring as it seemed endless at times and served more to slow the pace of the action. The book is ambitious and at times magnificent but in the end, left me wanting as the whole didn’t quite live up to the sum of its parts. B- mainly for the bravura use of language and period detail.