Hodder & Stoughton | 2021 (5 August) | 304p | Review copy and Bought copy | Buy the book
It is 1370 and time has passed at the manor of Somershill in Kent. But the past has never been so urgent for its lord, Oswald de Lacy. Oswald’s mother, a formidable woman, is dying and in her possession is a letter that raises ghosts from that terrible time of 1349 when the Black Death crossed the land, killing so many in its path, including Oswald’s father and brothers. Oswald’s mother needs to understand what happened all those years before in order to make peace with her son before it is too late. And so Oswald sits by her bedside and recalls the time when young women disappeared from the village and he, a young novice monk, tried to find out why, when every day the world grew smaller as communities shrank into themselves, or fled, as the plague crept relentlessly nearer.
The Oswald de Lacy series is wonderful. It’s beautifully written and it moves around the years, and around Europe (Oswald has spent time in Venice), but its focus is always the plague years and always this Kentish haven. Almost ten years have gone by since The Bone Fire but this fifth novel, The Good Death, calls a halt and instead goes back into the past. We spend brief interludes in the ‘present’ of 1370 but the majority of the time is spent in the days leading up to the arrival of the Black Death when Oswald found himself with reasons to investigate the disappearance, and presumed murders, of several girls from the village. At the time, Oswald was a novice monk on the cusp of manhood, never expecting to inherit. Everything was about to change.
The story, as usual in these fabulous novels, is excellent and the further it progresses the more involved the reader becomes. It has a gentle pace but during the second half I found myself utterly engrossed and read all of that half in one sitting. The mood and atmosphere build and build as the plague creeps ever nearer. The village feels like a refuge but for how long? And where are the young women? The answers lie in the woods around the village and, in that lawless place, anything is possible. It is sinister and menacing in equal measure while Oswald, the innocent, falls into the thick of it.
The Good Death is beautifully written and immersed in its time, surely one of the most terrible periods in English history. Of course, this was written, and read, in a time of pandemic and that certainly adds to its mood and perhaps makes it easier for us to relate to these frightened communities. You don’t need to have read the other novels to enjoy this one, although you might have a greater appreciation of Oswald’s mother and sister if you have done. The focus is most definitely on the past, although that is rather pleasing as it means we have fresh light thrown on the earlier novels in the series. It’s clever, without a doubt.
I love Oswald. He feels real to me, as do his family and friends. I marvel at the way in which the author evokes this feudal age. It’s so well drawn and full of lots of historical details about life, society, law, medicine, work, obedience in a mid 14th-century manor, in which workers are compared to mute insects, and monastery. Oswald bridges society and in some ways is very alone and on its margins. There is a strong sense that he must let the past go and here we find out why.
The Good Death is a fabulous historical crime mystery and I didn’t guess it at all! The historical setting is great, as is its location in woody Kent. The story is so good but this book goes bigger than that, finding a way in to explore a time in our history when death became more horrifying than ever and when feudalism itself came under attack from an unexpected foe, plague.