Friday, December 30, 2011

Morality Play

Author: Barry Unsworth
Publication Date: 1995
Cost: The original list price is $13.95, but, since the book has been out for a while, I am sure you can find used copies for much less than that. The Kindle version will be released this January, and it will cost $11.99.
Discovery: I found this book listed on, and I added it to my list.

The Backstory

The focus of this novel is a young priest, Nicholas, who deserted his diocese in the spring, and finds himself without a refuge as winter approaches. After fleeing a rather compromising situation, he crosses paths with a group of "players," or a traveling band of actors, standing over a dying one of their own. When they discover Nicholas, watching the troupe under the cover of darkness, he convinces them to allow him to join them to take their lost companion's place. They continue their journey, with Nicholas, to Durham where a sponsoring lord is waiting for their Christmas entertainment. On the way, they stop in a town to perform for extra money, and they learn about the very recent murder of a young man, Thomas Wells. A monk, serving the local lord, found the purse of coins Thomas Wells was carrying in a weaver's home, and the weaver's dumb daughter stands accused of the crime. One of the players convinces the others that it would be more interesting, and more profitable, to perform a play about the murder of Thomas Wells, however, their intentions and their attempts to gather information, get them more, and more deeply involved in the situation...

There is very little concrete information about time or place in this novel. The action seems to take place after the plague years (1340s), and it certainly takes place in England as the players are on their way to Durham. However, all of the people are fictional, and many of the locations are not named. The book is not particularly long (only about 200 pages), and its action is confined to a few days--maybe two weeks or so--in December. The novel is "told" from Nicholas' perspective.

What About the Book?

Although an interesting read, I found this book's general atmosphere of abstraction a detriment to what could have been a much better story.

The author clearly is familiar with medieval mystery plays. The longest and most detailed--and by far the best--chapters all describe the players' performances. If the author is equally well-versed in the history of the period, it is not revealed in the story. It may be the lack of time or place that creates the abstraction that detracts from the story. However, this abstraction also extends to the people the players meet along the way. None of them seem very real, and this is a product of the author's sacrifice of character development for the sake of the plot of the novel.

Using the medium of the play to work out the mystery of Thomas Wells' death is a very creative idea, and it is very well executed in the book. Each performance prompts the characters to learn more by various means to improve the play with more details that answer the questions they, and the audience, pose. There is a lack of urgency, though, when it comes to the discovery of the truth in the mystery. First, the author, in the voice of Nicholas, eludes to how terrible circumstances to come will be in the novel, but the story never quite lives up to the implications previously made. In fact, should those allusions be removed, the novel would very much improve.

It took me a very long time to finish this book, and I'm not sure I can blame distractions for that. I really think it was the abstract feel of the book that kept me from returning to it faithfully. I didn't at all feel connected to the characters--not even Nicholas. The second half of the book felt far more "real" than the first half, and I found myself really interested in finishing the story once I passed the halfway mark. After some Internet research, I get the sense that teachers are having students read this book in class--as a story, this isn't a bad choice, but if this is being used to teach the so-called "Middle Ages" to students, I would recommend against that. This story, honestly, could have been set at any time in any place. Turn this into a traveling acting troupe of the 19th century's story, and you wouldn't lose very much at all in the plot or the characters.

Rating: I have to admit to having trouble assigning a rating to this book. I have settled on a 6.5 for the moment.
Buy It or Borrow It: If you're a mystery fan and looking for something new and different, you can't go wrong either buying or borrowing this book. I would recommend against picking this up on Kindle after it comes out--paying close to $12 for this so long after its original publication when there are hundreds of used copies out there for less than half of that. And, it was popular enough that I am sure it is sitting in your local library right now. However, if you are looking for a good story set in Medieval England, I would recommend against it because there isn't very much truly medieval about this book that anchors it to the period.