Hurdy Gurdy by Christopher Wilson review – medieval black comedy

This picaresque tale of a naive young monk who leaves a trail of destruction during the Black Death shows that it is possible to find humour in a pandemic

If you see Brother Diggory coming, head in the opposite direction. For he brings the good Lord’s word and also the plague. It is 1349 and the Black Death has reached Britain and Ireland. Brother Diggory is a 16-year-old novice of the Order of Odo (followers of Saint Odo the Ugly, also known as the Dingy Brothers) who, on losing his brother monks to the pestilence but mysteriously surviving himself, sets forth into the world to see what he has been missing.

Like Christopher Wilson’s previous novels such as The Ballad of Lee Cotton and The Zoo, Hurdy Gurdy is a black comedy narrated by a naive outsider. We follow Brother Diggory over the course of a year as he journeys across England attempting to help those he meets. Disasters accumulate. “I think myself a fortunate man,” he says serenely. And it’s true that while he is ill treated by his fellows – robbed, assaulted, imprisoned – they tend to come off worse from the meeting. Diggory accidentally kills two consecutive wives: the first he gives the plague, the second he finishes off with amateur brain surgery. Even his pet rat, Brother Rattus, doesn’t survive the friendship.

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