Hazel McHaffie

the plague

Historical fiction par excellence

The year is 1785. The place is the centre of Paris. Unusually heavy spring rain causes the bank of the cemetery of les Innocents, crammed full of bodies from the plague and the years since, to give way. The neighbours are overwhelmed by the stench and the effluent washing through their cellars. It’s poisoning the very air of the city.

A young engineer from Normandy, Jean-Baptiste Baratte, is called in. The church and the burial ground must be destroyed, he is told; everything must be made sweet again, the poisonous influence of the past must be eradicated. So says no less a personage than the king! Baratte sets about amassing a rag-tag workforce and equipment to achieve this objective, and the macabre task begins. Before long the skeletons become visible … the depths of the many plots are plumbed … a steady procession of horse-drawn carts carries the disinterred bones, under velvet drapes, accompanied by chanting priests, to a newly sanctified quarry for their last resting place … the church and its precious organ are dismantled piece by piece. And gradually, almost imperceptibly, the terrible smell lifts, beautiful flowers begin to grow in the new sanitised soil. But it comes at a price.

It’s a year of
bones, grave-dirt, relentless work. Of mummified corpses and chanting priests. … A year of rape, suicide, sudden death. Of desire. Of love …

The cemetery has been at the heart of life in the area for many people. Their very breath smells of it. Some indeed perceive themselves as its guardians. So what does this clearance mean for them?

There’s pretty Emilie Monnard aka Ziguette, daughter of a prosperous shop owner, whose window overlooks the cemetery. She’s watched burials there for years. Long after the mourners have left, she’s continued to keep watch over the dead like a sister or an angel. Now the man who is to destroy all she holds dear is lodging in her family home, and she will go to any lengths to save her precious heritage.

Then there’s the sweet auburn-haired emissary of death, Jeanne, teenage granddaughter of the aged sexton, who knows the cemetery intimately, and regards herself as custodian of its inmates, her vast extended family. Her affiliation to the dead moves her to be protective of what the project unearths. But her naivety, her dreams, end in smithereens when she’s rejected and then ruined.

Jean-Baptiste, however, from the moment he glimpses her, is unaccountably obsessed by the mysterious Austrian, Héloïs Godard – otherwise known as the town’s whore, nothing to do with the cemetery. No one is more disconcerted than he when she agrees to move in with him in his lodgings.

An unlikely setting for a novel you might think: a rank burial ground; it’s destruction. Especially in an age when justice, mercy, honour, sanitation and medicine are crude concepts. But somehow, the very unlikeliness of the backdrop gives additional heft to the story.

Pure, by Andrew Miller, is beautifully rendered with exquisite turns of phrase, and similies, and descriptions, which are pitch-perfect for the era they capture.

… riding out of the rags of last night’s mist

… the kitchen – that scrubbed and orderly world where even the light seems to lie like lengths of rinsed muslin …

Somewhere between very late and very early, some deep velvet-lined pocket of a winter’s night.

He has a candle in his head, all the light he needs, and he begins to play a Couperin trio from memory, his spine and neck arched slightly backwards as though the organ was a coach-and-six and he was hurtling through the centre of les Halles, scattering geese and cabbages and old women.

I was mesmerised – read it in a sitting!

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The Midwife of Venice

‘At midnight, the dogs, cats and rats rule Venice. The Ponte di Ghetto Nuovo, the bridge that leads to the ghetto, trembles under the weight of sacks of rotting vegetables, rancid fat, and vermin … It was on such a night that the men came for Hannah.’

How about that for an opening hook?

And this for a delightfully evocative spooky cover …

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich is an ambitious debut novel set in the sixteenth century. (Echoes of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice are, I presume, deliberate.) Hannah Levi is a Jewish midwife famed throughout Venice for her exceptional skills. However, the law forbids her to attend a Christian woman, the penalties being severe, endangering not only Hannah personally, but the entire Jewish ghetto. It’s a time when anti-Semitism is rife: ‘if a sparrow falls from the sky in Venice, it is considered the fault of the Jews.’ So when a Christian nobleman, Conte di Padovani, appears at the door of her hovel in the Jewish ghetto in the dead of night, demanding her services for his wife, she is torn between a natural compassion and a fear of retribution. He offers her a handsome reward – sufficient money indeed to ransom back her husband, Isaac, who has been captured and held as a slave by the Knights in Malta.

Both the Contessa Lucia and her unborn son are near death by the time Hannah is summoned. If she were to fail to save them she would be in terrible jeopardy. But by some miracle and the application of her special instruments, the child is delivered. Alive. Just. Thwarting the machinations of the Conte’s greedy and feckless brothers who are poised to inherit everything if the child dies; leaving several people bent on revenge.

Hannah’s story in Venice is interspersed with Isaac’s experiences trying to escape his captors in Malta. Having been to both places, I found the scenes evocative, mesmerising and convincing. For me, the suspense in Venice feels more compelling than that in Malta, but there is the added tension of wondering whether this couple will ever see each other again. Hannah and Isaac parted after an argument. Desperately seeking to be reunited, to make reparation, they are thwarted at every turn. Will their joint disappointments and sadnesses ever end? As they both set sail towards each other on broiling seas we are held in suspense … even now will their paths cross cruelly as their respective ships plough on through turbulent waters?

Love, blackmail, murder, plague, intercultural tension, rescue … it’s a tale which rollocks along, weaving a tapestry of pictures of Renaissance Italy, and religious and cultural bigotry, and family rivalries.

The rigid discipline of ancient laws and entrenched customs forms an immovable spine for this book. Even when lives and happiness are a stake, the Jews fear disobeying their ancient codes and commandments. The Rabbi has been urging Isaac for years to divorce Hannah  because of her barrenness; now the Society for the Release of Captives is ready to release private funds to pay his ransom … if, and only if, he signs the divorce papers. Such inflexibility is a complete mystery to gentiles – as a Maltese man says to Isaac:  ‘Your laws are designed to create unhappiness.’ But they too have their own strong prejudices and suspicions.

For the most part the pace, the language, the style of writing, is entirely apposite for the period, and the glossary and biography at the back are testament to the care Rich has taken to ensure authenticity. However, I must confess I harboured a sneaky feeling that a few of the more modern expression or pithy insults might have been doctored for our more twenty-first century ears. But I might be entirely wrong.

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