An upmarket historical novel, offering a meditation on sin and a panorama of early 17th-century England, follows two outcasts on the run who form an unlikely and affecting bond.
As concerned to capture the sound and texture of the past as to tell his story, Beahrs (Strange Saint, 2005, etc.) employs archaic, often poetic language and utilizes a welter of period detail. His England is a busy, often pitiless place, now in additional ferment as vagabonds are encouraged by landlords to enclose the common lands, bringing further hardship to the local peasantry. When elderly widowed herbalist and healer Sarah complains to Sam Ridley, the leader of one such group, she is forced to wear a scold’s bridle. Taking her revenge, she flees the village, to be joined on the road by Bill Palmer, a sin-eater (someone so desperate and hungry that they consume corpse food which will supposedly transfer the sins of the recently dead into the live body). As they travel, Sarah applies her skills to cleansing him, at least physically. When Ridley catches up to them, Sarah uses herbs to drug him, moving on again to the seaside town of Northam, scene of a violent episode in her past and now the place where Ridley and Bill fatally confront each other. Sarah will pay loving homage to Bill before leaving by ship for a new life in Virginia, in the colonies.
Sensitive work—sometimes fusty, finally affecting.