[summer 1348 in Dorset]
In eight days, he saw just one living person: a mendicant friar on his knees before a door in Athelhelm, retching blood and bile into the dust of the ground. His face beneath his cowl was drawn with pain and Thaddeus guessed he was as badly afflicted as the people he was tending. Yet he pulled himself upright to answer the voices that cried to him from inside the houses. Knowing he could never do the same, Thaddeus was left to wonder why so saintly a man merited so terrible a death.
At 100 paces, the sweet, sickly smell of corruption that blew from Athelhelm village was powerful. It was the same in Afpedle. Thaddeus estimated the village had once housed upwards of 400 field serfs, but the only evidence of them now was in the all-pervading stench of death.
commentary: The Demesne in Dorset where Thaddeus grew up, Develish, has seen the first effects of the Black Death sweeping through the countryside, and has withdrawn into isolation – serfs and ladies are behind a moat, trying to protect themselves from the plague. Thaddeus and some young boys have left the safety of the commune to try to find out what is going out in the countryside around (and to avoid some trouble at home).
The Last Hours has absolutely gut-wrenching descriptions of the effects of the Black Death – there were potential excerpts that I rejected for fear you were eating while reading this. And Walters does not hold back on the scale of death, the unimaginable horror of whole communities wiped out, and lying where they fell.
The statistics are still startling. This is part of the Wikipedia entry:
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia and peaking in Europe from 1346 to 1353. The plague created a series of religious, social, and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history.
The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30–60% of Europe's total population. In total, the plague may have reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century. The world population as a whole did not recover to pre-plague levels until the 17th century.Unimaginable.
The characters in the book are hoping to survive through isolation, and with some careful venturing out on the part of Thaddeus. They face enormous difficulties, both inside and outside their compound. They are led by Lady Anne, the widow of the landowner, who has taken Thaddeus as her right-hand man, despite his lowly birth.
Minette Walters wrote a highly successful series of thrillers from the 1992 The Ice House onwards: they were compelling, dark and - above all – contemporary. They dealt with aspects of life around the millennium, and were rooted in real life in the UK in those years. So this is quite a departure, and it is a very odd book indeed.
It is most certainly not a traditional historical novel. It is obviously very well-researched, she is very convincing in her details and seems to have created an authentic picture of life in 1348. But at the same time – many characters act in very modern ways, and speak in modern ways. This has to be deliberate on Walters’ part, and in fact the genre The Last Hours most resembles is the dystopian sci-fi plague thriller – like Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, or Emily Schultz’s The Blondes, all on the blog in recent years. It fits in well with those books.
She has obviously not tried to replicate 14th century language, but at the same time, she has characters saying ‘which of those words did you not understand?’ and ‘You’re the one who made bad choices’. It does actually resemble a feisty YA novel at times. It is very long, and very repetitious, and very gruesome. But the real problem for me was that she told you exactly what to think about each character in turn – like a beginner who hasn’t been told ‘show not tell’ at Creative Writing classes, and very different from her other novels. Everyone is given a few traits at the beginning, and that is that. You might find out more about them, and some past history is revealed, but no-one is less marvellous, or more forgiveable, than on their first appearance.
Walters apparently has a lot to fit in – she explains at great length how they cut up the sleeves of their jerkins to make pots watertight (I think – it was quite dull) but cannot explain why the wel-born young woman Eleanor should be the most wicked person to walk this earth, with the possible exception of her father. It was odd that no attempt was made to redeem a young woman who I think was about 14: I was uncomfortable with the wholesale condemnation of her by the good characters. If you are going to give them 21st century attitudes in other areas (which Walters most certainly does), then a little understanding wouldn’t be out of place.
There were some mysteries and revelations to keep up the interest. The logistics of living closed off from the world were interesting, though the philosophies behind it seemed simplistic, and the reader is haunted by the idea that Lady Anne’s ideas weren’t all going to work that well: life isn’t that easy now and it wasn’t then.
Right at the end Walters reveals that this is the first of a series, and cuts the tale off in mid-action, which was very annoying to some amazon reviewers. It will be interesting to see how many of her readers she takes with her to the next instalment.
Top picture is citizens burying their dead during the plague, in Belgium. From Wikimedia Commons – they are a lot more organized than the people in the book, who are falling at such a rate that they cannot give even basic burials.
The other picture is St. Charles Borromeo Giving Communion to the Plague-Stricken, from the Athenaeum website.