Simon & Schuster | 2017 (15 June) | c.350p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is December 1348 and the Black Death ravages England’s terror-stricken population. God has turned His back. The bodies of men, women and children fill great death pits in the towns and cities while more corpses rot where they fell – on streets, on country roads, in their houses, in each other’s arms. Brothers John and William are travelling by foot to Exeter, a place that both know well but is especially meaningful to John, a stone mason, who carved some of the brand new cathedral’s statuary, incorporating representations of himself, his brother and his beloved wife into its carvings.
But they see the work of pestilence everywhere and know it is only a matter of time before they too are stricken. And when the inevitable happens, they seek to make peace with God in a sacred place. But instead they are made an offer: they can either return home to live out the six days remaining to them or they will experience each of those six days, 99 years apart from the one before. They would move through the centuries with all sign of the plague removed. But at the end of those six days they will face the Final Judgement.
And so begins an extraordinary journey for two men whose lives have been lived firmly within the medieval world of the mid 13th century. Men for whom God is central to their existence, just as the Earth is the centre of the universe. Both John and William fought for Edward III in France, determined if necessary to die for their beloved King. As they make the first leap – to 1477 – they realise that everything will change, that they will stand out more and more. Not just for their clothes and their accents, but also for their faith, their convictions and their morality. All of these elements of life are fickle. All of them change through the centuries as John and William experience such times as the rise of Protestantism, the English Civil War, culminating in the early 1940s. While their world expands across seas, some things remain the same. War, above all else.
The Outcasts of Time is an astonishing novel, not least because it combines a fascinating, irresistible Faustian tale with a clever scrutiny of the transition from the medieval to modern worlds as it would have affected an unexceptional everyman from the 13th century. It’s a personal story, as told through the words of John, and, as such, it is moving, heartfelt and often tragic, especially as he misses his wife and children. But it also tells the broader tale of humanity’s progress (or lack of it) through seven hundred years. The judgement on how well we have done comes from John as he struggles to make sense of it all, or at least some of it. Hanging over it all, though, is the memory of the plague and the descriptions of this are powerfully repulsive and painful to read. We all know about the Black Death and how it eliminated so many villages and devastated towns and cities but this novel reminds us of the countless human tragedies that combined to create the disaster. What John and William and others had to endure is appalling.
The novel is rich in themes but it is also packed with the most fascinating historical details, as you’d hope when considering the credentials of the author historian Ian Mortimer. I loved all the details about dress, houses, the shifting form of the city of Exeter and the changes to the use of the countryside, as well as the gradual introduction of developments in technology, the sciences, the arts. Imagine seeing trains for the first time, or a clock, or hearing a piano or Mozart, or a line from Shakespeare, seeing a movie. Or learning that man’s position to the universe and God is not what you thought. That morality can shift, even the nature of good and evil. Yet you can look into the night sky and the stars are still there. Whenever I visit a historic place I always think about the people who trod those stones before me – what did they see? What did they think? The wonder that history holds is everywhere in this novel.
The Outcasts of Time is one of those novels that I think would actually benefit from a second reading. It is so richly layered with themes that it is only when you (or at least me) reach the end that you fully realise what an achievement this book is, how much there is in it to discover. At the time of reading it, I was caught up in each of the episodes and I didn’t make all of the connections between the centuries. At the end I realised that I had missed some of the ‘clues’. This is most certainly a novel that deserves and rewards a close reading and your full attention.
The ideas in The Outcasts of Time are huge but they are also wholly accessible because they are planted in a story about two brothers who, when faced with a most terrible and frightening death, have to make a personal choice. This marvellous novel engages the heart and mind and, when finished, it’s not one you want to forget.