Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

review by Maryom

Summer 1348, and rumours are spreading throughout Dorset of a virulent plague which kills everyone who comes into contact with it. Alarmed by the news, Lady Anne of Develish decides to take drastic precautionary measures, bringing all the estate's serfs and freemen within the bounds of the manor house's moat and refusing entry to everyone else - including her husband, who has just returned from a neighbouring estate infected with the disease! 

This possible haven is threatened from both within and without. People, animals and chickens cram themselves into the moated area, but, after an initial flurry of settling in, there's little to do but wait out the pestilence, and tensions are running high; a situation exacerbated by the positively weird behaviour of Lady Anne's teenage daughter Eleanor. Their situation is threatened by armed soldiers roaming the countryside, and, despite moving the villagers' stores into the hall, supplies won't last long and ultimately someone must venture out to find food, and check on the situation on neighbouring estates.

This novel is another case (there seem to be quite a few around at the moment) of an author 'jumping' genres. Minette Walters is known for her crime novels; here she's taken on a mix of historical and apocalyptic fiction. I suppose we tend to think of apocalyptic fiction as belonging to sci-fi or futuristic writings, but the Black Death was very real, sweeping through Europe and in places killing half the population. 

I'd expected a somehow 'busier' story, more action-packed with Lady Anne and her followers almost constantly fighting off attackers; instead it's slow burn sort of read, but one that's grabs the reader. An enclosed community is bound to suffer from tensions, without taking a plague ravaging the countryside into consideration, and this one is no exception. It's only when a group is forced to venture out and confront the devastation left by the plague that they realise how lucky they were.

There's an amazing amount of period detail, fitted in round the story rather than obscuring it, explaining the social structure under which serfs were bonded to a lord, unable to leave his property, limited in the work they can do to better their own lot; that lord paying allegiance to a higher lord; and everything ultimately being at the king's disposal. And of course, women at every level having least say of all in their lives.
Lady Anne is an unusual women - raised in a convent, with firm beliefs on cleanliness and sanitation, but not meek and mild as you would expect. She's well aware of the wrongs committed by her husband, and where ever she can, she's taken a stand against them, altering their serfs' lives for the better. When others are saying the plague is sent by God as punishment for sins, she looks for more practical reasons behind the outbreak. Maybe she feels at times just a little too modern and informed, but if monks at the time could have thinking on the same lines, why shouldn't a clever, convent-raised woman?

Maryom's review -  4.stars
Publisher - Allen and Unwin
Genre - adult historical fiction

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