Blasts from the Past: The Leper’s Companions by Julia Blackburn (1999)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

I can’t remember how I came across Julia Blackburn’s gorgeously poetic novel. I’d left bookselling and wasn’t yet working in magazines so I know that it wasn’t something a rep whose opinion I trusted had recommended or a book I’d been sent speculatively by a publisher. How ever it happened, I was enchanted by its strange dreamlike quality and the beauty of its writing.

Devastated by grief having suffered the loss of her beloved, a woman escapes into a strange and fascinating world, sometimes watching, occasionally involving herself in the life of a fifteenth-century English village. The villagers have their own griefs to bear: a young girl loses her husband to an obsession with the mermaid he brought ashore only to have her disappear; a shoemaker’s wife watches as her dear husband regains his sight only to lose his wits; a young woman mourns her grandmother whose peaceful death follows a long slow scrutiny of the life that rushed past her as she lived it. When a leper arrives in the village, he finds himself miraculously recovered from his affliction and joins the villagers who have been inspired to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Our unnamed narrator accompanies them on their journey.

The Leper’s Companions is a slim volume – a novella, really – but it’s not a book to be gulped down in one sitting. Its exquisite language and images are to be savoured so that they linger, working their magic on the reader’s mind. Not an easy one to track down these days, I suspect, but well worth it if you enjoy reading for writing’s sake.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

12 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: The Leper’s Companions by Julia Blackburn (1999)”

  1. As I read this I thought I knew the name Julia Blackburn from another novel, but checking her out discover that that wasn’t the case so now you’ve got me worried because I’m trying to remember who wrote the novel whose title is half formed in my head. However, this sounds really interesting so if I can pick up a secondhand copy I will do.

  2. This sounds lovely, very meditative. Your commentary on it reminds me a little of Lampedusa’s novella The Professor and the Siren, a dreamlike story of a magical romance between a young man and a mysterious creature from the sea. It has a similar feel, I think. (There’s a review over at mine if it’s of interest.)

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