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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.