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To Calais, in Ordinary Time

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  719 ratings  ·  137 reviews
Three journeys. One road.

England, 1348. A gentlewoman is fleeing an odious arranged marriage, a Scottish proctor is returning home to Avignon and a handsome young ploughman in search of adventure is on his way to volunteer with a company of archers. All come together on the road to Calais.

Coming in their direction from across the Channel is the Black Death, the plague that
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published September 5th 2019 by Canongate Books (first published 2019)
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Average rating 3.74  · 
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 ·  719 ratings  ·  137 reviews

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Sep 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
To Calais In Ordinary Time is the story of a group of travellers journeying across England at the outset of the Black Death. The entire novel is written in semi-medieval English and told from three different perspectives: that of a scribe whose language is studded with Latinate terms; that of a young noblewoman whose diction is marked by Norman French; and that of a ploughman whose vocabulary is more clearly Saxon.

James Meek depicts a world in the process of huge transformation. Social norms ar
Paul Fulcher
Dec 28, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: 2020
It’s Cotswold. It’s Outen Green. As if no French never touched their tongues. I ne know myself sometimes what they mean. They say steven in place of voice, and shrift and housel for confession and absolution, and bead for prayer.

The People’s Act of Love by James Meek was in my top 3 books of 2005, edged out only by the first volume of Marias’s magnificent Your Face Tomorrow trilogy and Salman Rushdie’s brilliant and underrated Shalimar the Clown, but I have been disappointed by the three subsequ
Keith Currie
Aug 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Love, Romance, Catastrophe

Bernadine, a damsel fated to an unwanted marriage, flees her father’s manor in pursuit of a romantic ideal; Will, a young herdsman, is sent to join a company of archers as part of the king’s levy; Thomas, a failed scholar, is assigned to the company of archers in lieu of a priest to take confession. All make their way together with the bowmen, battle-hardened at Crecy, to Melcombe in Dorset in order to take ships to Calais. Coming in the opposite direction is the pestil
Mar 09, 2020 rated it liked it
England, 1348. This story is driven by three main characters. Bernadine, a gentlewoman, who flees arranged marriage. A proctor, who is returning home from England to Avignon, France, where pestilence has already reached. Therefore, he doesn’t know what awaits him there; an empty villa or his housekeepers welcoming him. Will Quate, a handsome young ploughman, who is also a skilled bowman. He volunteers as an archer, thus it takes him on the same road to Calais as the fleeing bride and returning p ...more
Blaine DeSantis
Apr 21, 2020 rated it it was ok
Have been attempting to read this book for a few months. and the only word I have to describe it is PLODDING. I feel like I am walking the road to Calais with them subject to all the slow going the travelers themselves encounter. I guess I might not be a "literary" as many other readers, but to me this book contained zero interesting characters, little interesting plot and just was a true grind to finish. I appreciate the author trying to write in 14th century vocabulary, but ne enough for me. ...more
Apr 28, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
With To Calais, In Ordinary Time, James Meek has created a wonderful novel that harkens back to a bygone world, which is yet extremely timely. We are in England, 1348; and rumours fly that a deadly disease is ravishing through continental Europe. Three parties are bound to travel to Calais, however - for love, freedom, or duty. Will fate catch up with them?

The three protagonists each have their own reasons to keep course, even when they realise the Black Plague has already reached the shores of
Rating: 2 confusing stars

Historical fiction set in 1348 Europe. That is just the type of book I normally love. However, these are not normal times, and this is not a normal book. This book valiantly attempts to tell the story of three different types of people travelling from England to Calais, France. Calais is currently besieged by the plague, the Black Death. On the road to Calais, There is a group of English archers setting out to fight the French. A highborn lady escaping an arranged marria
Aug 03, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: kindle, netgalley
This is a book that requires your full attention, going very slow through pretty, almost prosaic scenery filled with indepth characters and dialogue. It is set in the 1300's and the language, although proper English, follows the spoken word of that day. The chapters are extremely long.
I love historical fiction and really tried to get into the story, but in the end I couldn't find the patience to continue and thus have shelved it for now.

Thank you Netgalley and Canongate for the ARC.
Mar 29, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: historical, britlit
I find it difficult to review To Calais, in Ordinary Time. I admired so much about it: the author's use of archaic Latinate, Norman French and Saxon vocabulary to flesh out the characters and setting, the laugh-out-loud bits of dialog, the almost Shakespearean nature of the plot, the almost cinematic nature of the prose, the experience of reading about the characters' fear of the plague while quarantined myself, nervously checking my temperature over and over to see if our modern day plague has ...more
Mar 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
In a horrible sort of coincidence, I ended up reading the perfect book for waiting out a pandemic: a book about the beginning of another pandemic. The Black Death looms over most of To Calais, in Ordinary Time, by James Meek, until the characters run right into it on England’s southern coast in the summer of 1348. Some of the characters think that the plague is a hoax. Others think it’s a French plot. Yet other characters are so caught up in their own personal dramas that they don’t care about t ...more
Paul Dembina
Nov 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Really very good. A mixed bunch of people heading to Calais with the Black Death imminent in 14th century England.
You have a group of archers off to fight the French, a noble lady fleeing an arranged marriage and a cleric returning to his home in Avignon.
What I found interesting was the variants of English used by these 3 sets of people. The nobles pepper their vocabulary with French words,the cleric in a similar manner but in his case it's Latin whilst the common folk use a more basic version.
James Murphy
Apr 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I thought it'd be interesting in this time of our modern pandemic to read a novel about another. In this historical novel set in the 14th century it's the bubonic plague or Black Death, called the pestilence or qualm by the novel's characters. It's a novel about a journey and as the characters approach the English Channel it looms over the horizon. The pest is rumor to them, but we readers know how real it was and know that as this small band moves east they'll meet it sweeping west like a weath ...more
Warnings: discussion of rape, sexual slavery, sex, general grossness. Profanity (some my own, some direct quotes)

You know, I was so excited for this.

Novels set during the Black Death are a bit of a obsession for me and I was excited to see a critically-acclaimed novel being written about them. The small-scale premise – a group of travellers heading for Calais as the Black Death begins – was also exciting. The praise quotes from Hilary Mantel and Sarah Waters also got me excited.

And then, I read
Mar 06, 2020 rated it it was ok
All this cool work with language and etymology, and the feeling I was left with more than any other was boredom. I didn’t care about the characters and I didn’t care about their stories. I didn’t even notice the differences in the languages used by the different narrators because I never felt like I had a handle on who all the narrators were. It felt like nothing more than a bunch of really small snippets of stories copied and pasted into one document. It wasn’t like Chapter 1 – Emma and then th ...more
Garry Nixon
Sep 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
One of the joys of good historical fiction is that it portrays human needs and dilemmas, but with people and situations who are far more alien to us than the characters in sci-fi. This is particularly true of this setting, at the onset of the Black Death, the beginning of the end of feudalism, and the flourishing of capitalism.

Social stratification is a constant theme. It's cleverly done, with three narratives written in styles suggestive of three Middle Englishes, ordinary people speaking some
Jun 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
I thought this was an engaging story, but it was a masterpiece of linguistic history. I've always been fascinated by the history of English; it's a mutt of a language, pieced together from the Germanic languages of the Anglo-Saxons, Norman French, Latin, and bits of Gaelic and Viking Norse thrown in for good measure. While all that borrowing has been murder on the consistency of our spelling and ability to form the past tense of verbs with any accuracy, it has given us such a fabulous vocabulary ...more
Aug 21, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is an extraordinary attempt to build a medieval world. It was an immersive experience. It took a while to get used to the language - neb for nose, steven for voice etc - but after 100 pages it felt like a natural way to distinguish between the different classes of people. It literally meant that they couldn't understand one another.

It tool some time to engage with the characters. I struggled to care about them initially - perhaps the language hing was acting as a barrier - but in the end I
Matthew Whyndham
I thought this was amazing. I finished it in a mere two cart-journeys on the road to the port, metaphorically. Physically I was safe in my village all the time, far from the pestilent airs of this troubled world. It really appealed to me from the beginning, and I found the mild puzzlement of reading the refracted language(s) highly entertaining rather than a barrier. Because I tend to notice things, I appreciated the sigils that announced each of the protagonists' worlds: Will's sickle, Berna's ...more
Oct 14, 2020 rated it it was amazing
really phenomenal

the story moved me a great deal

other authors would have made this tale more grim, with more violence and cruelty on top of the black death, because Back Then everything was bad

Meek, instead, leans into what connects us to men and women of 700+ years ago: ambition, indecision, aspiration, love, and each person's distinctive moral code

I particularly appreciate the gay storyline, which is not incidental or minor but central, and believable

it takes a while to get accustomed to the l
Patricia O'Brien
Oct 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: library
An excellent book of many tales in one novel. The early language is an enjoyable challenge which I hadn't experienced for a very long time - not since The Name of the Rose. ( I stress I don't compare it to that.)
The characters are diverse - some noble but many despicable and their journey together is fraught with tensions and danger, not least from the plague.
Many of the threads contained in this book gave me much to ponder: brutality and gentleness, fidelity and oppression. However, surely the
Sep 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Historical fiction at its best!
I loved how well this book is written, the character development and well researched historical background.
It made me travel in time and I couldn't put it down as the plot is gripping and engaging.
I look forward to reading other books by this author.
Highly recommended!
Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for this ARC, all opinions are mine.
Sep 04, 2019 marked it as maybe

Set in 14C, James Meeks new novel: In “To Calais, In Ordinary Time” the Black Death is a kind of hold-all catastrophic metaphor: for climate change, political meltdown and moral decay
Jan 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
My main takeaway is that it was possible to wear the same dress for a lot of days in a row in 1348.
Dec 28, 2019 rated it liked it
Set in 1348, England, the story features four (not three, like the blurb says) people who join up with a company of archers on their way to fight in Calais, France: a farmhand-cum-archer named Will, a Scottish proctor named Thomas on his way to Avignon, a knight's daughter named Bernadine fleeing her arranged marriage to a much older man, and a fourth person who will remain nameless so as not to spoil the story.

The narrative is by far the most intriguing aspect of the novel. It is written in a m
Aug 08, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: read-2020
I was really looking forward to this. I loved James Meek's last historical novel, the Booker long listed The People's Act of Love, which is set in the midst of the Russian revolution. This book took its place in my Want to Read list as soon as I heard of it. So actually reading To Calais, in Ordinary Time was a crushing disappointment.

It's set in 1348, a period when England had briefly annexed Calais as its own, and also a time of plague. Potentially an interesting time, made more so reading ju
This a dense, slow read of a novel, because the way it is written, the tight-bound structure of the sentences and the inventiveness of the language needed much concentration. In the end I had to sit at it to get it finished because the voice was so strong as to prevent me getting on with my own writing.

It did feel over-stuffed, went on a little longer than desirable (especially Thomas); long enough for the fascination to fade, but is nevertheless an impressively-written and moderately enjoyable,
John Kaye
Dec 28, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: abandoned
It may be a tour-de-force, but Í'm afraid I didn't have the patience, and baled out around page 100. Also, I'd found by then that I didn't care much about the characters, so reading at twenty pages an hour wasn't working for me. ...more
Nov 01, 2020 rated it did not like it
Quite honestly, appalling. I tried to immerse myself in the story, acquaint myself with the characters, familiarise myself with the bizarre language and vocabulary; but to no avail - I began losing interest quite early on and any lingering enjoyment dissipated into nothingness around the time of the joust that wasn't a joust. I somehow trudged on to the end, ne wanting to give up - by the end I felt I had succumbed not to the black death but the black boredom. ...more
Jun 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The language, a sort of adapted Middle English, definitely has a learning curve. But once I acclimated the book took off and I ran through the final 250 pages in just a few days. Meek's work here is really interesting, with a lot of contemporary concerns/ideas being spun through a story whose structure and characters are still thoroughly medieval. It reads like someone who saw the archetypes, appreciation for sharp instincts, and stark moral lessons of Chaucer and decided to give them a 21st cen ...more
Jan 03, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Abandoned, but not removed from kindle.
The author has written a Mediaeval road trip novel, with an attempt to show the different usages of the English language of the time by people of different classes and levels of education. Unfortunately he has done so in a way which did not work for me, although I can see he has tried. The introduction of a few archaic and invented words (with the appropriate origin) jarred and the characters and story were not compelling enough to overcome that. He has tri
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