Like his best-known work, the Whitbread Prize-winning English Passengers, Matthew Kneale’s diverting new novel uses a variety of narrative voices to explore a slice of history.
In this case it’s England in 1289, a place oppressed by royalty and religion, where citizens of every social class are obliged to make pilgrimages to atone for their sins or those of loved ones. Thus, on a picaresque journey from London to Rome, Kneale can bring together a large cast including a libidinous aristocratic woman, a pugnacious knight, an indentured simpleton, a bagpiper who undertakes pilgrimages for pay and two women who claim to be mouthpieces of the divine.
The result is a broadly humorous unpacking of medieval society and belief, with a dark seam of hatred — of the recently conquered Welsh, and particularly of England’s tiny but reviled Jewish population — coursing through it.
This England is a place where everyone is either committing, or repenting of, sins. As well as acts of violence and theft, there’s a lot of sex in the book, in and out of wedlock, across class divides and within convent walls, though it’s done for comic rather than erotic effect. Kneale contrasts the relative fellowship enjoyed by pilgrims to the cruel, transactional nature of the world. He is better at describing the strict codification of society by rank, gender and faith than he is on the realities of crossing the Alps on foot.
It’s written in pacy contemporary English but phrased in a way that sounds suitably olde-world. The strongest voice is that of the underdog Simple Tom, begging his way to the Pope in the belief he can free his dead cat from purgatory, though licentious Dame Lucy de Beaune is also fun to be around. The annoying Matilda Froome is rewarded for her vainglorious piety by turds laid in her travelling boots.
Inevitably, as new travellers join the band, each explaining their history, social standing and transgressions, the book becomes a little repetitive. And at the end, all the plotlines are tied up too neatly for comfort. But this is an enjoyable exploration of ancient English beliefs and loyalties that still have disquieting echoes today.
Pilgrims by Matthew Kneale (Atlantic, £16.99), buy it here.