Boyd Tonkin

The truth one year, heresy the next: The Book of Days, by Francesca Kay, reviewed

A richly imagined novel unfolds in an Oxfordshire village as the accession of the child king Edward VI brings another round of ‘newfanglery’ in religion

Holbein’s portrait of Edward VI, whose accession to the throne is central to The Book of Days. [Getty Images]

Bad historical novelists assume that people always live at the spearhead of their age. Good ones, like Francesca Kay in her fourth book, know that even when the world spins ‘faster than a weathervane in a gale’, most hearts and minds will tarry in the past, behind events. The Book of Days unfolds in a village north of Oxford in 1546 and 1547, as the unnamed old king dies and the accession of his child heir brings another round of ‘newfanglery’ in faith. The ‘commotion time’ returns with all its frightening convulsions: now, ‘what was truth one year is heresy the next’.

It would be tempting to treat this book as a Catholic pushback against Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy

Despite the distant thunder of Protestant Reformation (neither word appears here), our narrator – like her kinsfolk – still inhabits a late-medieval domain. Here, ritual and custom measure out ‘the heartbeat of our lives’. In English churches you often find that the loveliest Gothic carving dates from the early 16th century – on the eve of its extinction. Wisely and beautifully, Kay commemorates this twilight flowering and the feelings that fed it.

In previous novels, she has written sumptuously about art (An Equal Stillness) and belief (The Translation of the Bones). Those realms join in this account by her protagonist Alice – the second wife of the stiff, secretive local squire – of the year that sees her lord die and the gusting ‘crosswinds’ of religious strife aggravate domestic rifts. Alice knows that ‘the world will not stay still’. Yet she loves the old ways, as church rites and feasts track nature’s ‘ever-turning wheel’ and the passage of the seasons. Those ceremonies keep the dead alive in requiem prayers – lost ones, such as her infant daughter, Catherine: ‘For as long as there is somebody to call you by your name, you are not forgotten.’

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