The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

Allen & Unwin | 2018 (4 October) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Turn of Midnight by Minette WaltersThe 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.

Other review
The Last Hours

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10 thoughts on “The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

  1. BookerTalk

    There was a time I read everything this author produced but that was easily 15years ago. I don’t know why I stopped. Good to know that she can still produce some cracking material.

    Reply
    1. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

      I think she stopped writing for about ten years or so, so, like you, there’s been a big gap in my reading of her novels too. These are such good books! A different genre but every bit as good as her wonderful thrillers.

      Reply
    2. Tess

      I was about to write the same comment! I think I’ve found other authors and am slowing down with age so I don’t get through as many books as I used to. It seems like one should be able to read more and faster with a longer history of being a book fanatique!

      Reply
      1. BookerTalk

        LOL. When I was working full time I imagined that, come retirement, I would read even more books but the reverse has happened. Too many other things to do…..

      2. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

        I actually read more during the working week as I read on the bus and also make sure I have an hour reading most lunchtimes. More structure, I suppose! But I do like my late nights reading my lamp light 🙂

      3. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

        Hi Tess! There are just too many books! As if that can be a bad thing… but it does mean you have to pick and choose. I have to abandon books these days which maybe once I wouldn’t have done. But I definitely read slower the older I get! So I need more hours in the day 🙂

  2. whatmeread

    I had my reservations about The Last Hours, because it read too much like a sequel was planned and sort of bogged down at the end, but if it is continued in just one book, maybe I’ll read this one. I think Walters books are generally terrific, but found The Last Hours a little disappointing.

    Reply
    1. Kate (For Winter Nights) Post author

      So sorry I missed this comment! I think The Last Hours did cut off too suddenly and so the books work better as a pair than on their own. The Turn of Midnight is, in my opinion, the better book so I hope, if you read it, you enjoy it. I loved her crime thrillers!

      Reply

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