The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, is a substantial but eminently readable work of historical fiction. Set in a remote fishing village in the heart of Exmoor during the 1361 outbreak of the Great Pestilence, it introduces the reader to characters from all social classes. The high born confidantes of the King guard their secrets whilst seeking to protect and increase their wealth. Those subsisting on the sparse offerings of a challenging lifestyle and landscape seek to survive.
Into this world comes a foreigner, Janiveer, washed up from the sea when a boat capsizes on rocks. She warns of the plague to come and offers to save the village, at a price none are willing to pay.
What follows is an exploration of the beliefs and superstitions of the time. There is Matilda, the wife of a ship’s carpenter who has been raised by nuns and idolises the trappings of the established church. There is Will, a false dwarf accused of theft and banished from the manor life into which he was sold. There are dependents of the overlord, holed up together to escape the contagion; villagers jostling for position as they fight for their lives; a renegade priest who has established a cult following he holds captive by fear.
The story opens with an eclipse of the sun, regarded as a bad omen. The village is struggling due to an unseasonal drought. With most of the residents living their entire lives within the village bounds, educated only in how to survive, old beliefs have merged with the teachings of the church to produce a population fearful of what will befall them if they do not abide by the many habits and customs passed down through the generations. Famine, disease and death are blamed on reprobates, those who will not comply.
When the plague arrives any common goodness or humanity is lost as attempts are made to isolate the disease. Families are torn apart, neighbours blamed. It was not the grief at death that depressed me but the reaction of those who couldn’t see beyond themselves.
I enjoyed the role Janiveer played as she stood her ground while men struggled to dominate her. She used their arrogance and weakness against them. I enjoyed the role of Will, whose life could so easily have left him bitter yet who was amongst the most humane. Lady Pavia showed political expediency, Sara a strength that belied the attitudes of the time to women.
The story captured my attention yet, as it played out, I felt depression at the believable behaviour of so many. This was blinkered small-mindedness taken to extreme. Within the confines of the only world these poeple can have known it may well have been how it was. I wonder how far we have come.
I cannot fault the writing, this is a compelling story. It enlightened but did not entertain.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.