The Leper's Companions: A novel
The Leper’s Companions begins, we know only that the narrator has lost someone she loves. In her bereavement, she creates a past in which she might both lose and find herself: a fifteenth-century village in a land of saints and spirits, inexplicable afflictions and miraculous awakenings. With a band of pilgrims—among them an old man, his pregnant daughter, a priest, a dying woman, and a leper—she discovers a beached mermaid, watches a priest drive madness from a woman’s mouth, enters a mossy forest inhabited by a hunted man covered in shaggy hair, and witnesses a map being digested in the belly of a ravenous woman.
Moving effortlessly between the magical and the real, the past and the present, the journey of the narrator and her companions transcends the physical terrain and becomes a fantastical quest for rebirth. We are skillfully ushered into the emotional lives of each of the travelers as they reflect and ultimately redefine the life of the narrator.
The Leper’s Companions reaffirms Julia Blackburn’s status as one of the most original writers at work today, as she makes the fictional narrative do the work not only of storytelling but also of invention.
Julia Blackburn’s first novel, The Book of Color, revolved around a curse; her second, however, is all about miracles—double-edged though they might be. The narrator is a nameless woman who has recently lost someone she loved. “What she wanted to do now was to bang the door shut on this present time by setting out on a journey to some distant country and staying there until the present had blurred and shifted and become indistinguishable from the past. But that was not possible.” A page later, we discover that, indeed, it is. At first, the narrator imagines herself in a nearby village, walking along the sandy beach or visiting the ancient church, its stones covered in lichen. Then, “one night in the month of February, when the east wind was bitterly cold and she felt so sad she didn’t know what to do, she found herself going down the main street of the village.” Only now the street is rutted with the tracks of carts, the houses are small and battered and the church is newly built—the past has, indeed, become indistinguishable from the present, for now it is the year 1410.
This is the year a mermaid washes up on the beach, bringing with her, apparently, a litany of disaster: a child born with a fish’s head, a dead cow, a creeping blindness. In the village there is a woman beset by devils; a blind shoemaker who goes mad when his sight is restored; a leper who is miraculously cured; a young widow who eats a map and is filled with longing for faraway lands. All, including the narrator, eventually embark on a long and arduous pilgrimage to Jerusalem, from which only two will return. The Leper’s Companions is beautifully written and its world of wonders is sufficiently rich to keep one turning the pages until the very end. Yet each event seems curiously isolated from all the rest, giving this novel an episodic feel that leaves the reader wishing for a little more substance beneath the beguiling surface. —Alix Wilber