The Great Escape

By Julia Blackburn.
197 pp.
New York: Pantheon Books. $22.


Julia Blackburn has made something of a specialty of the estranged and displaced — of people who, for whatever reason, find themselves far from home. Her nonfiction book ”The Emperor’s Last Island” examined Napoleon’s exile on St. Helena; ”Daisy Bates in the Desert” recounted the true story of an early-20th-century Irishwoman who lived for many years among the Australian aborigines. Now, in her second novel, ”The Leper’s Companions,” Blackburn gives us a woman who lives in an English village, presumably in the present day, and whose response to a loved one’s death is to disengage herself psychologically from the modern era and retreat into that same village in the year 1410. For the next several months, she observes the lives of its inhabitants, who are only sporadically aware of her presence.

I have said that Blackburn ”gives us” this character, and in a way each sentence of the book does exactly that — because every aspect of what she experiences in the medieval village is presumably meant to be understood as a creation of her own psyche, a commentary on her ”real” life by her subconscious mind. In another sense, though, Blackburn hardly ”gives us” this character at all. At no time does she reveal the woman’s name or age or profession or the circumstances of her loss; nor does she put any clinical label — such as ”psychotic delusion” — on the woman’s retreat from the present.

But then that’s the way Blackburn operates: in book after book, her approach to narrative has been elliptical, impressionistic, even surreal, blending historical fact with imaginative flight, melting one level of fictional reality into another, offering a dazzling abundance of detail while providing little in the way of context and explanation. So it is here. The protagonist steps into the Middle Ages as if into an adjoining room, and for the most part she stays there — though midway through the book, having undergone some kind of surgery, she does present a glimpse of a modern hospital room whose antiseptic whiteness contrasts sharply with the medieval houses made of ”cow dung, horsehair and lime.”

The protagonist — who sometimes narrates and is sometimes referred to in the third person — speaks of having effected an ”escape” and describes the village as a ”shelter.” But the setting into which she escapes is hardly a refuge from loss and suffering. On the contrary, the villagers, lacking (among other things) modern plumbing, sanitation and medicine, experience life in all its filth, difficulty and discomfort. The most striking thing about these people is how truly a part of nature they are. Their quality of life is roughly equivalent to that of the animals they raise and slaughter and eat.

Even before her retreat from the present, the woman imagines herself in animal terms (”Her mind was trapped like a wild thing in a cage, zigzagging backwards and forwards, desperate to find a means of escape”), and after her withdrawal into the past, she finds herself ”shadowing” the 15th-century villagers ”with the same furtive longing” as a dog. Little wonder, then, that her otherworld is crowded with reminders that humans are, like animals, part of nature — as are illness, madness and death. Corpses and body parts abound; they serve to underscore the inevitability of death, as well as the fact that beneath our civilized comforts and self-deluding vanities, we are all ultimately carrion. ”When the King of France died in battle,” one villager recalls, ”they boiled him. In a pot. They buried his cooked flesh there where he had fallen with an arrow through his heart. But they put his clean bones in a box and sent them to his wife. So that she could have them. And remember him by them. Her King.”

No bedtime story, that; yet there are also images in this book that suggest the presence of beauty and spiritual meaning in death and in the human oneness with all mortal flesh: ”A pile of gutted herrings . . . began to shine with a natural luminosity. I stroked one with my finger which took on the same pale gleam.” For the villagers, the world is a place not only of mud and maggots but of magic and miracles; for them, heaven and hell are as real as the trees and rocks. Among much else, one comes away from this book with a strong sense of how deeply grounded the spiritual is in the physical, and of the degree to which modern comforts and conveniences, by insulating us from nature, also distance us from God.

Though Blackburn brings the 15th-century village and its people hauntingly to life, readers making their way through the first half of her novel may well find it, for all its arresting images and exquisite writing, somewhat fragmented and directionless. This changes abruptly near the book’s midpoint, when the protagonist departs for the Holy Land in the company of the local priest, a cured Venetian leper and two widows. In its symbolism, this pilgrimage seems to involve a journey back to wholeness, and the account of the journey — in which the woman’s companions peel off one by one, their varying fates suggesting that she is indeed healing — forms the most vivid and engaging part of the book. It is significant that the Holy Land does not prove to be a source of easy answers and quick fixes. It is a place like any other: the River Jordan is sluggish and dirty, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher mobbed with noisy pilgrims.

This slim book possesses a remarkable intensity — which is not an entirely unmitigated asset. Reading large stretches of Blackburn’s exhaustingly rich and, alas, unrelievedly humorless prose (which, even as it delineates the protagonist’s dreamscape, is also continually pondering the nature of fiction) can have an effect rather like that of viewing the Met’s entire medieval collection without a break. Moreover, though this reviewer is an expert in neither the Middle Ages nor modern psychiatry, it does seem that the novel adds up to a far more credible portrait of the 15th-century world than of psychotic delusion (if that is what the woman’s ”escape” is meant to be). Yet readers who dwell on such concerns about novels like this will almost certainly not want to read ”The Leper’s Companions” anyway. Others will find themselves transported by the book’s hypnotic vision of the world’s horror and beauty, banality and sacredness — and of the frailty and splendor of the human mind, which can be devastated by adversity but from which can nonetheless spring powerful religions, brilliant novels and extraordinary dreams.