When the Black Death had finally eaten its full in 1350, the communities that had survived were left in turmoil, the strings holding society together on the verge of snapping. Oswald de Lacy had been destined for a monastic life, having been sent to the monastery at a tender age, but after his father and two elder brothers were despatched in short measure by the plague, Oswald was recalled by his mother and sister and he assumed, while not yet twenty, the title of lord of Somerhill Manor. The Kent village of Somerhill is a shadow of its former self, many of its occupants, all valuable workers on the Somerhill farm, are dead and several of the survivors have succumbed to superstition and fear. When the body of a young girl is found, her throat torn, the villagers believe the local priest Cornwall when he tells them that she was murdered by no mortal hand but by devil’s beasts, humans with the heads of dogs.
As lord of the manor Oswald feels obliged to investigate the girl’s murder, not least to stamp out the dangerous beliefs being spread by the illiterate and ignorant priest. Oswald considers himself a man of science, having been trained in the monastery’s medical practices, learning from Brother Peter who had left the monastery by his side. When he locks away Joan, the village whore, Oswald is confident that he has solved the case and dispersed the mystery, explaining it away as nothing but a domestic fight. But a second girl has disappeared and it becomes increasingly likely that there are other forces at play here, perhaps not supernatural, but dark and foul nonetheless.
Plague Land is an extraordinary debut novel – confident and clever, bringing the reader so close to the history it evokes. It’s difficult to imagine a bleaker period in English social history than the mid 14th century. Its onslaught of plague (and grief), famine and war would have affected all levels of society but for the peasantry it would have been devastating. It’s so horrendous that it’s difficult to imagine how people would have felt at the time, how they would have coped and how they endured. But S.D. Sykes manages to make it real. Somerhill is a small village but before the Black Death it had been prosperous. With a depleted workforce and an inexperienced lord at the helm, the future does not look good, especially when neighbouring lords have the money to tempt peasants to work their fields instead. But Sykes also shows us in a very effective manner the workings of medieval feudalism – the homeless, peasants, monks, minor lords and earls all play a part here and we see all types of labour, from pigfarming to healing to the dispensation of justice. And it’s not just men, either. Sykes makes the role of women clear, as victims, as mothers, as workers and as wives, and, with the exception of Oswald, women are among the strongest of all the characters.
The events of the novel are narrated by Oswald himself and he is a most entertaining young man to spend time with. Despite the terrible circumstances that have made him lord, Oswald retains a sense of humour and a sincere desire to do well, for others and for himself. He tries to fit in philosophical reading, he wants to be enlightened and so he is personally affronted by the superstitious nonsense of the priest Cornwall. By contrast, he feels a great deal of warmth and affection for Brother Peter, despite Peter’s love of the ale barrel, but Peter’s religion is a very different kind to that of Cornwall. The affection between Oswald and Peter, his long suffering but genuine care for his mother and sister and the warmth that he feels for some of the villages as he gets to know them (even those who have been murdered), stands in stark contrast to the horror of the times and the extreme brutality of the murders. It’s surprising, perhaps, how many times this novel made me laugh. The dialogue is superb.
Aside from Oswald, to whom I grew very attached, there are some great characters in Plague Land and chief among them are Oswald’s really rather odd mother and sister, either of whom would be enough to drive anyone mad while, at the same time, thoroughly entertaining the reader. Some of Oswald’s responses to them are priceless. But I was always aware, as is Oswald, that they deserve our sympathy, as does the woman Joan.
The mystery at the heart of Plague Land is fabulous. I worked out some of it but certainly not all of it and it kept me on tenterhooks to the last page. I really wanted to know. In fact, I found everything about Plague Land unputdownable as it immersed me so fully in the mid 14th century, carried along as I was by these excellent characters as well as by S.D. Sykes’ wonderful writing. There is a lot going on in this book, all of it fully engaging – S.D. Sykes is to be congratulated. One of my top books of 2014 without doubt.