The Leper’s Companions

By Julia Blackburn

The dream vision is a literary form with a long history, peaking in English with Chaucer and Langland during the Middle Ages. These days, you don’t see it around so much. The presentation of alternate worlds and allegorical visions has been mostly colonized by science fiction and fantasy writers. In this new book, Julie Blackburn has chosen the more traditional approach, demonstrating once again how convention and invention go hand in hand.

Out of the sparest language, she has fashioned a uniquely haunting and suggestive tale of a modern woman who enters an English fishing village in the year 1410.

We know very little about the woman. At the beginning we are told that she has lost a loved one. Near the middle of the book we find out she is ill. While she is a presence throughout, it is only as an observer rather than a participant. Her connection to the world she experiences is, as in a dream, never made clear. The books stays true to what is an allegorical sensibility: all we are told is all that matters.

The story begins with a fisherman finding a mermaid washed up on the beach. From here we are led into a description of the village and its inhabitants, their lives and loves. It is a strange world, full of earthy odours and easy death, physical and spiritual appetites, magic and ignorance.

Eventually, three of the villagers – the fisherman’s daughter, the shoemaker’s wife, and the priest – decide to accompany a wandering leper on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Only one of them will make it back.

That may sound like an odd synopsis, but The Leper’s Companions is a very odd book. In terms of style and feeling it reminded me of nothing so much as Willa Cather’s Death Comes For the Archbishop, another historical novel that manages to be both undramatic and profoundly spiritual. Like Cather, Blackburn’s strength is in understating the passion of her characters. Nothing in the writing draws attention to itself, yet the effect of the whole, as befits such a meditative work, is both lasting and deeply felt.

Review first published June 12, 1999. This one took me by surprise, becoming one of my favourite books of the year. I chose the analogy to the dream vision because of the frame and the medieval setting, but fans of “magic realism” may find the resemblance to authors like Marquez to be more suggestive.


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