As we hit mid-March, and I hit 25 books (about half of which have, unusually, been historical fiction set in the Tudor period), this is my favourite read of 2019 so far.
This volume gathers five relatively short, separate but intertwined accounts of life in St Andrews over a single year, and presents them in almanac form, following the festivals of Candlemas, Whitsunday, Lammas, Martinmas and Yule. The main character is Hew Cullan; the stories centre round deaths he is obliged to investigate and events in his extended household.
There’s nothing showy or flash in this book – no plots to kill the King/Queen; no bizarre rituals or serial killers; no appropriation of the charismatic mantle of well-known historical figures; no beautiful, headstrong duchesses to be seduced.
Thank God for that!
Shirley Mckay writes about the mundanity of human lives (and deaths) in a beautiful, sensitive way. She captures the loves, fears, friendships and rivalries of ordinary human beings remarkably well. The book is suffused with atmosphere, often melancholic and poignant: the ‘Lammas’ section in particular is heartbreaking. The characters and relationship are well-drawn and complex, and the customs of time and place brought to life subtly, without any intrusive or clumsy exposition. The book is appended by a useful glossary of some of the Scottish vernacular and some background information about the festivals themselves. Something which –might– have proved useful is a family tree of sorts, allowing easy reference to the relationships and hierarchies involved.
Highly recommended if you want a more thoughtful visit to the 16th century than the usual potboiler provides.