Hurdy Gurdy

Written by Christopher Wilson
Review by Katherine Mezzacappa

1349: the adolescent Diggory has been a friar in the order of St Odo since he was eight. The community’s mission is to care for the sick, so the boy learns the craft of medicine (a concoction of Avicenna, Galen and superstitious charms, in which the brothers nevertheless are aware of the schools of Salerno and Padua). The friars survive on spectacularly disgusting food; of an animal, they are permitted to eat only the offal. Their patron saint was a mystic who foretold the age of a small-handed orange-faced man who reversed truth and lies, and of thinking machines with flat glass faces.

This is not, however, Catweazle’s electrickery and telling-bones for grown-ups: the novel is both an utterly convincing excursion into the medieval mind and a prescient tale, for this plague year, of how human beings react in the face of incurable pestilence. Plague is brought to the friary by a group of mummers and, when he becomes infected, Diggory is quarantined by being locked up to die. When he does so, he is sent back pretty swiftly from the hereafter for saying the wrong thing, and manages to escape only to find he has to bury those of his companions who haven’t fled. As the only one left, he declares himself abbot, but leaves the friary without his habit and, as a boy who up to then has had only wet dreams and hissing at the abbot’s cat to confess, goes off to grapple with an alien and dangerous world. This world is not just dangerous for Diggory: though apparently cured of the plague himself, it breaks out wherever he goes. This is an enthralling read.