1066: The Healer

Written by John Wright
Review by Steve Donoghue

The neat, clever conceit animating John Wright’s novel The Healer is a simple, persistent reminder to the complacency of modern-day readers, perhaps especially American readers: the East never had a so-called Dark Ages. While eleventh-century Europe was mired in war and barbarism, rife with village superstition and almost devoid of cultural or philosophical refinement, the various ancient civilizations along the spice routes to the Far East enjoyed comparatively advanced levels of science and art.

Wright’s novel dramatizes this by having two young boys get kidnapped by Vikings and sold into slavery in the East, where they quickly rise to positions of favor in the court of a powerful khan. When they escape and find their way back to the England of William the Conqueror, they experience severe culture shock—their homeland can be a startlingly primitive place.

The framework is clever, but Wright’s two main characters are the extremely winning center of this novel. Riennes de Monfort is the healer of the book’s title, a sensitive young man whose command of Arabic medicinal techniques makes him the most skillful doctor in England, and his companion, the young warrior Haralde, is often a wonderful foil and counterbalance to Riennes (a sequel to The Healer, centering on Haralde, is promised and should prove lots of fun). The chemistry between the two only deepens as the novel’s many twists and turns proliferate.

There are bumpy patches in the book’s execution, and some of the period dialogue clangs awkwardly (‘thee’ and ‘thou’ language purists never want to admit that accuracy here is secondary to popular usage—eleventh-century grammarians don’t set the terms—Rudyard Kipling and Sir Walter Scott do), but overall this is a very enjoyable dramatization of a cultural clash that still fills the world today.