December 2017 – January 2018

Noted

‘City of Crows’ by Chris Womersley

By Helen Elliott
Picador; $32.99

Chris Womersley’s work is, happily, always unpredictable, but City of Crows is a particular surprise. The year is 1673, and Charlotte Picot finds herself doing things that would have been unimaginable when she was living in deep rural France. The plague came to her village, taking almost everyone, including her husband. Charlotte’s other children died of illness years earlier; her focus now was to protect her one remaining child, nine-year-old Nicolas. Charlotte heard Lyon was plague-free, so she and Nicolas began a journey there.

Her worldly education is swift. She learns that the plague has no borders. Also that it isn’t the plague she should fear, rather the people she meets. Nicolas is kidnapped by bandits and Charlotte is left for dead, hovering for days between life and death. She wakes in a cave to find she has been nursed back to life by a woman who has otherworldly, maybe magical, powers. Most disconcertingly the woman informs her that she, Charlotte Picot, ignorant peasant, has been chosen to inherit these powers. When Charlotte protests, the woman places in her hands a small black book. It is a book of sorcery, containing instructions about every amulet and talisman that Charlotte might ever require in the search for her son.

Initially Charlotte is sceptical, but her immediate need is someone who can find Nicolas. So, reading from her book, she summons a spirit helper from perhaps heaven, probably hell. Lesage, a conman in possession of a treasure map and in need of a witch, appears in her path. The substance of this novel is the mismatched couple’s 17th-century road trip. The mismatching of character and intent creates some brilliant deadpan comedy.

“I usually try and write the novel that I would like to read but hasn’t yet been written,” Chris Womersley has said. City of Crows is just this novel. It is fiction based on historical incident and real people (and there were books believed to contain magic, and thoughtful, brilliant people often had faith in them), but it opens out into something more imaginative than historical reconstruction. Womersley has infinite sympathy for the human condition. We may laugh at past sorceries and magic, just as our descendants will laugh at our beliefs. But Womersley doesn’t laugh at the past; he respects the individual within her time. His writing is poetic and original; his insights into human character are true. Charlotte and Lesage shine as subtle, believable, likeable characters: cruel and treacherous but also funny and touching. Yet deep engagement is impossible. I felt I was in the front row of an entertaining and intelligent piece of theatre performed by exceptional actors.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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