Tuesday, 1 February 2005

Sylvian Hamilton: The Bone Pedlar (2000)

Edition: Orion, 2001
Review number: 1284

Any novel which begins with a sentence as eye catching, absurd and grotesque as "In the crypt of the Abbey Church at Hallowdene, the monks were boiling their bishop" deserves to be read. It's also hard to live up to, and The Bone Pedlar doesn't quite manage it despite being consistently interesting to read.

Most people probably know something about the background to The Bone Pedlar, which is one of the more disreputable yet strangely fascinating aspects of the medieval church, the trade in supposed body parts of the saints as relics (or if they don't, they will certainly have heard of the most famous surviving example, the Turin Shroud). Because of the reverence paid to them and the miracles associated with them, they were focal points for pilgrimages and brought vast sums to the churches and abbeys which owned the best ones. If you think we have moved on from this, just think about how we treat Elvis and Beatles memorabilia.

The story concerns a knight in the England of King John who has become rich by acting as a dealer in relics. (There seem to be rather too many nobles who work for a living in this novel considering the period, a time when knighthood still remained quite closely connected to landownership and military service.) Sir Richard Straccan obtains a relic of the apostle St Thomas for a client, but when the fingerbone is stolen, his daughter is kidnapped as an incentive for Straccan to find and retrieve it. The Bone Pedlar is basically a medieval thriller with a bit of horror thrown in, and as such it works quite well.

One major criticism, however, of The Bone Pedlar is that its medieval background lacks versimilitude. The society depicted is too classless, and there is too little distrust of travellers and outsiders (a common defect in the portrayal of the period). At least there is a generally quite high level of piety. This is of course not meant to be a novel containing a detailed picture of medieval life, but all too often the narrative seems only vaguely rooted in period, a serious problem in a historical novel. If not taken too seriously, though, The Bone Pedlar is a fun and enjoyable thriller with a great opening.

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