The Butcher Bird | S.D. Sykes | 2015, Pb 2016 | Hodder & Stoughton | 352p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is September 1351 and the Black Death has abandoned Somershill Manor to its misery. Like so much of England, the village is now half empty, its survivors suffering not only from grief but also poverty and hunger, weighed down by the yoke of serfdom. The young Oswald de Lacy wants to be a good Lord to his people but his hands are tied. With houses lying empty or, even worse, inhabited solely by a lonely orphan, and with fewer hands to farm the fields, labourers might have thought that their value would increase. Likewise, Oswald wants to keep everyone he can, paying them a fair wage, but the King’s new laws suppress peasants’ wages to pre-plague levels. Serfs must continue to know their place. And as fields and houses empty further, as children starve, is it any wonder that the people of Somershill should believe that they are cursed? When a baby is found dead, impaled on a bush’s thorns, there are few who don’t believe that this is the work of the devil in the shape of a demonic winged creature – the butcher bird.
Somershill is a manor that has been torn apart by superstition and witchery before. Oswald had then failed to save the life of a child that the villagers deemed inhuman. He does not want events to repeat themselves. And so young Oswald does his best to promise what he can to his serfs while fearing the worst. And the bodies of the small and innocent increase in number. It’s not long before the villagers find a scapegoat for the deaths, a man in league with the devil’s bird, and Oswald is determined to protect him, investigating the deaths for himself, examining the little bodies, witnessing the grief of their suffering, downtrodden parents.
Oswald has more than enough problems of his own to cope with, some left over from recent events described in Plague Land. Matters aren’t helped by his mother and sister who have a mannner and charm all of their own, especially his insufferable mother. Oswald’s sister Clemence is about to give birth herself and it’s more than obvious to everyone that this is not a good time or place for defenceless babes. It does little to improve Clemence’s humour. Her wild stepdaughters and their hideous cat are enough to push her over the edge. In the middle of it all is Oswald, a young man who feels like the ground has shifted from beneath his feet.
Plague Land was such a good introduction to Oswald and his really rather horrendous family and it’s so good to return to Somershill, even though it has to be among the unhappiest places that one can imagine. While The Butcher Bird can be read as a stand alone novel, it completely reveals the plot of Plague Land and this is well worth bearing in mind. And so there are no spoilers here for the first novel.
The focus in The Butcher Bird, perhaps even more than in Plague Land, is on creating a mood. Atmosphere matters more here than plot, enjoyable and mysterious though that is. The novel richly evokes a terrible period in our history. The emptiness and despair of the time is caught well. And, although Oswald is a minor aristocrat with funds to spare, he suffers for his people and for what he perceives to be right. He is such a sympathetic character and it’s impossible not to warm to him. But despite the difficult subject matter and the awfulness of the times, there is plenty of light relief in The Butcher Bird and it is supplied by the gallon by Oswald’s appalling mother and sister. Yet, strangely, I did find myself feeling for Constance, despite her unpleasant quips and cold stares. There could hardly be a worse time to start a family, whatever one’s social position. The humour adds an interesting modern touch to a novel that otherwise feels immersed in the Middle Ages.
The villagers are, on the whole, a completely unsympathetic bunch. Perhaps they’ve understandably been robbed of their humanity but their dependence on superstition makes them dangerous. These are not decorous maypole-dancing medieval peasants, they are unhappy and they are angry.
The pace of the novel is leisurely. As mentioned before, the mystery is most definitely less important (and less memorable) than the novel’s atmosphere and display of family politics. Nevertheless, The Butcher Bird is another fine novel by S.D. Sykes, beautifully written and building on what has gone before to create a wonderful portrait of this young lord who might consider himself out of his depth but who is in reality perfectly at home. I look forward very much to finding out what will happen to him next. Anything might happen and probably will. Poor Oswald.