Julia Blackburn,
The Leper's Companions
(Pantheon, 1999)

The unnamed narrator of The Leper's Companions has suffered a loss, although the details are not specified. In coping with her grief, she retreats to a world which she seems to have created, a 15th-century seaside village. Her presence in this world is neither welcomed nor rejected; it is simply acknowledged. She moves among the characters like a ghostly witness, observing and recording events.

Her sojourn among these people begins with the discovery of a mermaid washed ashore; the young fisherman who finds it is eventually driven to taking his boat out beyond safe waters. A leper passes through the village, leaving behind a guidebook for the Holy Land. He gives it to Sally, a young mother and wife to the fisherman. Later, he returns to lead a handful of villages and the narrator on another pilgrimage, at the end of which the narrator is ready to face her future.

The narrative is dreamlike and hazy, with the fragmented continuity and shifting perspectives of a dream. At times, the narrator disappears entirely into a third-person voice. There is a recurring image of something washed ashore -- the mermaid, a body, the leper after a shipwreck -- and the repetition reinforces the dreamy quality of the text.

The characters are more like emblems the priest, the shoemaker's wife, the red-haired girl -- and only two or three are actually given names. They seem to represent aspects of the narrator's personality, particularly the leper who is trying to expiate a loss. These characters are dismissed or drop away until only the leper and the narrator remain.

The abstract quality of the writing may frustrate readers who prefer a more concrete plot and characters, and at times, the book verges on the arty and deliberately obscure. But readers looking for something different would do well to try The Leper's Companions.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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