A wet nurse in 14th-century France sustains an entire town with her milk during a siege.
In 1349, 15-year-old Blanche was miraculously borne aloft in church as the inhabitants of Villeneuve prayed for deliverance from pestilence. Townsfolk gave her the surname Mirabilis (“astonishing”), venerating Blanche until it became clear she was pregnant. In 1362, her 12-year-old daughter, Bonne Tardieu (“God’s bastard”), watched as Blanche perished in the church set ablaze by those same townsfolk. Now Bonne is 22, living on precarious sufferance as a wet nurse in an insular society brilliantly re-created, from the physical filth of the streets and the residents (who seldom have a chance to bathe) to the political machinations of the priests and the powerful. Though her illegitimate baby died six years ago, Bonne keeps her milk flowing between jobs by suckling her friend Godfridus, a journeyman carver working on the new church who dreams of praising God in his own, innovative sculpture. Hired by wealthy, pregnant widow Radegonde Putemonnoie, who feeds her lavishly to improve her milk, Bonne flourishes even as the English besiege Villeneuve: an attack by a starving artisan shows her how she can nourish the hungry town. Baroque though the story developments are (Bonne also rescues Hercule, a seeming child who turns out to be a dwarf fleeing his murderous noble master), Cokal’s elegant prose never stresses the weirdness, focusing instead on the characters’ longings for love and transcendence. Bitter, provocative Hercule and tormented Godfridus are strong supporting players, as are a power-mongering priest and a bakerwoman who voices the volatile emotions of the town masses, ready to cry “saint!” one moment and “witch!” the next. Proud, secretive Radegonde seems closest to the author, who views the medieval church with a sardonic eye but keeps an open mind about the “miracles” that overcrowd the close of an otherwise meticulously plotted and thoughtfully developed first novel.
Strikingly original and thematically complex. Readers who like to be challenged will devour this—and wonder eagerly what this adventurous newcomer will do next.