In the Forest of Dean in the 14th Century, young Martin Collyer wakes from an illness – the plague – that should have killed him. Beside him, his father lies dead, half-sewn into his shroud. Outside, Martin finds the family’s horse and cart loaded with all their household goods, and, nearby, an exquisite, life-sized statue of the saint a peddler had convinced his father to believe in: St. Cynryth, the White Maiden. The local priest had never heard of her, but Martin’s father was convinced of her power and her blessing.
Remembering where the peddler had claimed the saint’s shrine was, a long distance east, Martin, wracked by guilt at his survival, begins a pilgrimage to the site through a countryside devastated by the plague. Along the way he meets Hob, a bitter, rebellious youth who sees a chance to reinvent himself in the breakdown of the traditional master-peasant relationships wrought by the deaths of so many, both lords and men. Martin reluctantly accepts Hob as a travelling companion on the road east.
The Black and the White is a quiet, almost lyrical story, a psychological study of guilt and faith and fear in a collapsing world. Written in both the present tense and in first-person, the immediacy of Martin’s thoughts contrast with the slowly unfolding story. A reader wanting rapid action will be frustrated by The Black and the White, but Alis Hawkins does a masterful job of creating and building tension throughout the story, both by the gradual reveal of Hob’s story and his true nature, and through Martin’s confusion and terror at the explanation of some of his own actions.
Modern language and, for the most part, modern place names allow the story to be accessible, but Hawkins writes with insight into the embedded, internalized fear of purgatory and hell and the power of the medieval church, and behind it, the remnants of pre-Christian beliefs in fairies and spirits and divination by magpies – the source (or one of them) of the title of the book.
Magpies and their ancient counting verse are woven into the narrative and Martin’s fears, and the use of this motif is also one of my few niggles about the book. Suddenly, with about eighty percent of the story told, a single magpie (‘one for sorrow’) is seen in a barren field of death, foreshadowing the ending – and that is the last mention of the bird of foretelling. The lack of this motif at the very end of the book struck me as unbalanced, incomplete – but perhaps that was the author’s intent, because it echoes what other losses Martin must come to terms with.
The Black and the White is a book to make the reader think, not just to entertain; an imagining of a post-apocalyptic England that 21st century minds can barely grasp.
Reviewed for Discovering Diamonds
© Marian Thorpe
Book and cover of the month
Book and cover of the month