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British author Blackburn (the nonfiction Daisy Bates in the Desert, 1994) offers the same wonder, vividness, and bravura of her dazzling The Book of Color (1995), if not always also that novel’s laser-like simplicity. It must be a sign when a mermaid, in 1410, is washed ashore near a small village in England. Even though she’s gone before the man who discovers her can run to the village and back (only a lock of her hair remains), her appearance is foreboding, and “people waited with growing apprehension for what might follow.” All of this, and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem that does in fact follow, is observed by a narrator of whom we know nothing except that she has lost a lover, has come to this village, and with a tender, never judgmental eye now observes its inhabitants—including the red-haired girl; the local priest; the person who remembers The Great Pestilence; the woman who sees devils; the pregnant Sally, whose fisherman husband dies at sea after discovering the mermaid; and the shoemaker’s wife, who sees her husband through blindness, then a miraculous cure, then a gratefully painless death. So it is that, halfway through the book, for one reason or another, a small handful sets out for Jerusalem, led by the priest and by the leper who appeared on the day of the mermaid, left behind a book about the Holy Land, then later reappeared, miraculously cured. Events and people both can be hard to keep straight in this shiftingly Under Milkwood—esque reconstruction of what it may have been like to be medieval, but vividness, image, and detail only intensify, then intensify yet again, through the suffering-filled voyage to Jerusalem, the visionary torments and joys experienced there, and the sobered return (though only of the priest and the invisible teller of the tale) to faraway home. Difficult, ambitious, demanding—and exquisitely, unendingly, depthlessly beautiful both in matter and manner, to be read not just once.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-43984-6
Page count: 208pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999


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