IAN MORTIMER has been described by The Times as “the most remarkable medieval historian of our time”. His ambitious and extraordinary latest novel not only proves the statement, but extends it: he takes the reader almost hypnotically through six centuries, from the 13th to the 20th.
The Outcasts of Time begins in December 1248; the Black Death is raging, and the narrator, John of Wraymont, a stonecarver who already has the plague in his body, goes to pray for help in Exeter Cathedral, his place of work.
A disembodied angelic voice like his own offers healing and possible salvation, but at a price: “I will let you live your last six days in the distance of the future. Ninety-nine years shall pass before you will return to live the first of your remaining days. Another ninety-nine will pass before your second. Five hundred and ninety-five years will pass before your sixth and final day, when I will come for you.”
He and his brother William then start their time travels in their familiar world around Exeter, moving between the rivers Exe and Teign: Honyton, Ashburton, Wraymont, the Scorhill stone circle, and Dartmoor.
Mortimer is brilliant at evoking both environment and period: the shift between centuries is carried with ease by his strong sense of place. The brothers move forward in time seamlessly; it is a device that could have jolted the reader, but it illuminates instead. We see the strangeness of each new era through the brothers’ confused eyes: the dissolution of the monasteries, the arrival of the Reformation, and the destruction of their Old Faith are movingly portrayed. They taste sugar for the first time: “It tastes as if God made it simply to make us smile. . . this wonderful new taste makes me think of my whole life.”
Each era melts invisibly into the next, ending with the horror of a bombing raid on Exeter in 1942. At last, the journey is over, revealing the truth that “home is not a place but a time,” the knowledge that “no loss is absolute,” and that the crucial element holding all together is love.
Peggy Woodford is a novelist.
The Outcasts of Time
Simon & Schuster £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70