Allen & Unwin | 2018 (4 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book
The Turn of Midnight follows on directly from The Last Hours and concludes this two-part series, so you’ll need to read them in order. This review assumes you’ve read The Last Hours.
It is late 1348 and the southern counties of England have gone quiet. Towns, villages and hamlets have been mostly silenced and emptied, by death and by the flight of those too terrified to stay and face the same fate as their loved ones, only to die somewhere else, friendless, instead. The small community at Develish in Dorseteshire survives within its moated enclosure due to the care and protection of Lady Anne. Their strict quarantine has kept them safe from the Black Death that killed Lady Anne’s husband, Sir Richard, a vile owner of land and souls. The serfs and slaves of Develish have been given the equality Lady Anne feels is due to all, and an education to go with it. One peasant, Thaddeus, a giant among men for his height and good sense, has risen to become Lady Anne’s most trusted friend but now he continues his travels across Dorseteshire seeking out the truth of what the pestilence has left behind. With him are five boys, fast growing into young men, and their journey will lead them to Blandeforde where everything that they, and Lady Anne, have achieved is put at the most terrible risk.
The Last Hours was such a welcome book – a new novel after many years by the fantastic Minette Walters in a new genre, historical fiction. And what a time she picked in which to set it. 1348 is such a pinnacle year in English history, not just for the Middle Ages but for all periods. England, like so many other places, was transformed by the torment of the Black Death and it could never be the same again for this de-populated land. To all intents and purposes, The Turn of Midnight opens in a post-apocalyptic world, a world that must be rebuilt, and the debate here is how that new world will be ordered – what will be the place of the peasant? and why did God allow so many to perish in such agony? Why did I survive?
I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight, which completes its story, is every bit as good. As it continues into the spring of 1349, the plague, at least in this part of England, has been left behind. Many survivors continue to hide in the most terrible conditions, imprisoned as much by their status as by their fears. Sheep roam free and ownerless but some peasants are too frightened to eat them and would prefer to starve. This is what centuries of feudalism have done to them. Other peasants, though, especially in the towns, are beginning to speak out, albeit cautiously. And it’s these beginnings of society’s transformation that is portrayed here with such colour and feeling.
The Turn of Midnight is on one level such an entertaining historical adventure as it recounts the journey of Thaddeus and his companions across an empty landscape. Many peasants would hardly have travelled and so I loved the section in which they encountered the sea for the first time. The joy of freedom is offset, though, by the desolation of some of the places they pass through. There are sights here that nobody should have to see.
Less time is spent in this novel in the Develish manor as the feeling grows that the time to cross the moat might be approaching but what we have is so well presented. There is change within, new people enter, so brilliantly observed by Minette Walters, while others are not the people they once were. As with Thaddeus and the boys with him, and all of the various people they encounter, everyone in this novel is beautifully brought to life. There are so many little touches that remind us that, although there are similarities between this world and our own, this is a very different, remote and possibly ultimately unknowable period of history. Language, for example, was almost a tool of oppression – the rich spoke in a different tongue, the poor of one area might be completely understood by the poor of another area, and the written word was the privileged knowledge of the few.
Then there is the role of priests, Christianity and religion in general. There is much talk of the deserving poor, the deserving dead, the role of mercy, charity and kindness – practical Christianity is put to test. Power, whether it’s in the hands of priests, stewards, lords, peasant elders or just men in general, is also another fascinating theme.
There is so much to be found within these two books. 1348 must surely rank among the worst of years of any age and Minette Walters brings the horror, desolation and terrible grief of it to life, while reminding us of its legacy for future generations. This is compelling historical fiction, which combines a thrilling story of adventure with some really big themes, all told with Minette Walter’s customary splendid flair.
The Last Hours