The Black and the White by Alis Hawkins

‘He has not made a good death and I am in terror for his soul.’

England 1349.  The Black Death is raging across the land.  Martin Collyer, whose last memory was receiving the last rites, wakes up to find his father dead beside him.  Martin is clutching a small statue of his family’s patron saint: Saint Cynryth. His father’s body, half sewn into his shroud, shows no sign of the plague.  Martin decides that he must seek salvation for his father’s unconfessed soul: he will undertake a pilgrimage to Salster, which is where he understands Saint Cynryth’s shrine to be.

Martin sets off on his pilgrimage, accompanied by an opportunistic young man called Hob.

‘Not every corpse put in a pit has died of the plague.’

The story unfolds slowly, as befits a dangerous journey.  Martin and Hob meet others, the statue of Saint Cynryth inviting attention along the way.  Martin is both naïve and devout: which Hob seeks to take advantage of.

‘Nothing is as it was.’

This is a novel best read slowly, without spoilers.  It’s easy, during the current COVID-19 pandemic afflicting much of the world, to imagine the fear endemic in the setting.  It’s easy to appreciate that Martin wants to do what is right, even if it isn’t clear exactly what that might be.

This is the second of Ms Hawkins’s novels I have read, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Sapere Books for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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