In 1289, the century before Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales takes place, a band of pilgrims leaves England not for Canterbury but to Rome, picking up members as they go. Their reasons vary, some hoping to release dear ones or themselves from Purgatory, some to be forgiven for their sins. Rather than each pilgrim telling a tale, the novel is the often comic and sometimes terrifying account of their journey, narrated by several different voices. The most appealing of these is the “idiot” Tom of Tom, a ragged bound servant who makes the grueling trek to Rome to pray for the soul of his beloved cat. In his apparent simplicity, Tom offers a humane perspective. Lady Lucy de Bourne, Kneale’s equivalent of the Wife of Bath, is my favorite reconstructed character from Chaucer, though readers familiar with his work may enjoy other rough parallels.
Superstitions about God and Satan are rife among the pilgrims, and their interactions and limited perspectives contribute to the satire. One speaks in the voice of God; one communicates with Jesus; and for several, holiness is the last thing on their mind. Some exhibit antisemitism, but the prologue, set twenty-five years before the story begins, creates sympathy for Jews in London and introduces a thread later to be developed.
The book displays folly and cruelty on this dangerous journey, pitted against kindness and generosity. Though not necessarily through the interventions of St. Peter, a degree of justice prevails at the end. A lively recreation of medieval times and beliefs, Pilgrims, released in 2020 in the UK, was named a Times Book of the Year. It deserves praise for its humor, vivid characterizations, and plot twists. Recommended.