To Calais, in Ordinary Time: prescient plague tale set in 1348

Review: James Meek’s erudition and research are clear and his prose often brilliantly fresh

Meek’s characters are on the road, heading for France, as the Black Death that will destroy half of Northern Europe’s population moves towards them. Photograph:  Mauro Magliani/Electa/Mondadori Portfolio

Meek’s characters are on the road, heading for France, as the Black Death that will destroy half of Northern Europe’s population moves towards them. Photograph: Mauro Magliani/Electa/Mondadori Portfolio

When it comes to historical fiction, James Meek has already proved himself. The People’s Act of Love, his literary page-turner set in Siberia in 1919, is extraordinary for many reasons, not least because it feels as contemporary as it does authentic. To Calais, in Ordinary Time takes place almost 700 years ago – in 1348 – but is, if anything, even more in dialogue with the present day.

In his other career as an award-winning journalist, Meek has written extensively about Brexit Britain. His collection of essays, Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, was published earlier this year and the themes of identity, belonging, xenophobia and migration in his new novel speak clearly to Britain’s current political turmoil. To Calais, in Ordinary Time is also overhung by the spectres of climate catastrophe, biological warfare and future pandemics. Meek’s characters are on the road, heading for France, as the Black Death that will destroy half of Northern Europe’s population moves towards them.

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