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To Calais, In Ordinary Time Reviews

To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek

To Calais, In Ordinary Time

James Meek

3.85 out of 5

10 reviews

Imprint: Canongate Books Ltd
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
Publication date: 29 Aug 2019
ISBN: 9781786896742

The new novel about home, belonging, love, courage and identity, set in the fourteenth century, from the Booker-longlisted author of The People's Act of Love

  • The GuardianBook of the Day
5 stars out of 5
Jon Day
12 Sep 2019

"At the centre of this beautiful novel is an exploration of the difference between romance and true love, allegory and reality, history and the present"

Like The People’s Act of Love, Meek’s historical moral fable set in 1920s Russia, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2005, the novel is staged as a series of almost magically strange encounters and scenes: marvels, you might call them. At Malmesbury Abbey the Abbot desperately organises shifts of his choir to sing protective hymns against the plague, until they tire and their voices fail. There is a pageant, balletically violent fight scenes – as good as anything in Cormac McCarthy – and some memorable sexual encounters... At the centre of this beautiful novel is an exploration of the difference between romance and true love, allegory and reality, history and the present. It plays out in unexpected and delightful ways, and it would be unfair to make these explicit. To Calais, in Ordinary Time ends with a consummation both of its technique and of its story that is affirming, tender and a little bit glorious.


3 stars out of 5
1 Oct 2019

"There are many brilliant passages in the novel "

 It’s testament to Meek’s novelistic ambition and diligent research that To Calais, In Ordinary Time sets out to tell so many arresting and unexpected stories, but by being about so much (medieval gender and sexuality, the roots of English nationhood, 14th-century theology, the morality of warfare, literary pastiche and so on), it ends up perilously close to being about nothing much at all.

4 stars out of 5
Allan Massie
18 Sep 2019

"Meek successfully imagines the mediaeval frame of mind"

Readers may find difficulties at first, but if they are receptive and especially if they sound the words to themselves, they will get the sense. In doing so they will feel their way into a culture very different from ours, yet with comprehensible similarities. It is very clever and I think that on the whole it works.

This is an unusual and highly intelligent novel. Parallels with our own time aren’t pressed hard. It can be read with pleasure as an evocation of a rich and disturbing age. I am not surprised that Hilary Mantel has found it “enthralling.” 

4 stars out of 5
Nick Rennison
15 Sep 2019

"Meek brilliantly creates a variety of voices, and a language appropriate to the 14th century,"

The year is 1348 and rumours abound about the approach of the Black Death. When rumour becomes reality and corpses pile up in the towns and villages through which they pass, they are all obliged to face their own mortality and their true selves. Meek brilliantly creates a variety of voices, and a language appropriate to the 14th century, for a story of the distant past with unsettling echoes of the present.

4 stars out of 5
Minoo Dinshaw
14 Sep 2019

"A thoroughly modern medieval romance"

The story’s action is more dreamlike than naturalistic, while none of the characters quite transcends their tapestry — the jejune would-be heroine Lady Bernadette perhaps comes nearest. Yet this somewhat austere authorial restraint proves an effective instrument in the creation of a convincingly medieval allegory with modern allegiances. Two of the most enjoyable episodes involve a well-foreshadowed cameo by an infamous royal figure, and a Quixotesque castellan dottily mistaking the characters for a company of the high aristocracy. Both appear to demonstrate Meek’s entire awareness of the robe-romp he has so adroitly avoided.

3 stars out of 5
Joanne Hayden
12 Sep 2019

"James Meek’s erudition and research are clear and his prose often brilliantly fresh"

To Calais, in Ordinary Time is at its best and most immediate when the characters are allowed free rein. There are surprising and memorable scenes at the joust and towards the end when the plague becomes a terrible and inescapable reality. In a simple but standout moment, Will and Madlen approach an infected village, passing fields of ripe barley where oversized sheep “foreswallowed their own weight in men’s food.” Humanity is under threat but nature is persisting. It’s eerie, prescient and weirdly reassuring – unlike much of the rest of the novel, which may be a feat of imagination but is strained by over-intricacy.

2 stars out of 5
Tim Smith-Laing
7 Sep 2019

"a motley crew on a medieval road-trip"

It is a bold conceit, and one that fits with Meek's interest in pastiche and genre games. His 2005 The People's Act of Love performed a not-dissimilar act of historical ventriloquism by taking the reader to an early 20th-century Russia evoked in the clipped tones of Constance Garnett's translations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008), set in 9/11's immediate aftermath, both poked fun at Tom Clancy-type thrillers and used them as a generic model, much as To Calais, in Ordinary Time does with medieval romance.

4 stars out of 5
5 Sep 2019

"A worthy successor to Meek’s prize-winning The People’s Act Of Love."

In 1348 a mixed group of travellers, including a bunch of ribald archers, leave Outen Green in Gloucestershire and make for France.

Bernadine, daughter of Sir Guy, is fleeing from an arranged marriage and trying to join her lover, Laurence Haket. Will Quate, a sturdy archer, plans to enlist in the army in France...

From this, a bold, exciting, original novel unfolds which makes connections between past and present cataclysms. A worthy successor to Meek’s prize-winning The People’s Act Of Love.

  • The TimesBook of the Year
  • The TimesCrime Fiction Book of the Month
4 stars out of 5
Antonia Senior
23 Aug 2019

"inventive and original"

This is the first historical-fiction outing for Meek since The People’s Act of Love, his excellent 2005 Booker long-listed novel set in Siberia in 1919. The mix of styles in To Calais at first makes it harder to love, but immersion comes quickly. It is an inventive and original novel that captures the distant past and pins it to the page.

4 stars out of 5
23 Aug 2019

"a fine historical novel"

Through [his] skilful deployment of language, Meek manages to craft a living, breathing world populated with characters that come alive in the mind. But while Thomas and Berna are fully realised, it is the rude mechanicals who steal the show... Although the medieval world Meek conjures here is an entirely foreign land, it’s hard not to read the novel with an eye on contemporary events. Meek is the author of six novels, including the Man Booker longlisted The People’s Act of Love. He’s also a journalist and his most recent book was Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, a collection of his long-form writing for the London Review of Books on Brexit. In To Calais, we have some of the same issues — class divisions; a desire for freedom — coupled with others that resonate with a modern reader. An established way of life is threatened by the imminent arrival of a cataclysm (here the Black Death bringing to mind the climate emergency); and Meek raises questions of sexual and gender identity.