England, 1348. A gentlewoman flees an odious arranged marriage, a Scots proctor sets out for Avignon, and a young plowman in search of freedom is on his way to volunteer with a company of archers. All come together on the road to Calais.
...[a] rich and strange new novel ... one of the many deep and destabilising pleasures it offers comes from trying to work out precisely what kind of a book – and what kind of a world – you are in at any particular moment ... The contemporary parallels – with Brexit, with the existential threat of climate crisis – are there for the making, but Meek never labours them ... There is a pageant, balletically violent fight scenes – as good as anything in Cormac McCarthy – and some memorable sexual encounters. The overall effect is of a radical generic ambiguity, so that you never know if you’re reading a comedy of manners, a bawdy romance, a dystopian novel or a medieval porno ... It is an audacious thing to try to create a world sufficient to be described in an invented language, but in To Calais, in Ordinary Time the effect is triumphant ... At the centre of this beautiful novel is an exploration of the difference between romance and true love, allegory and reality, history and the present. It plays out in unexpected and delightful ways, and it would be unfair to make these explicit. To Calais, in Ordinary Time ends with a consummation both of its technique and of its story that is affirming, tender and a little bit glorious.
...true love, individual will, and uncertainty take to the road in James Meek’s freewheeling, exhilarating novel ... There is an infectious energy to the whole complicated set-up ... 'You ne understand allegory,' says Berna to Pogge, in one of several winks to the reader early on, letting us know what kind of journey we are in for. Meek explains in a note that he researched his various Middle English dialects with the help of the OED ... Who knew? Such are the pleasing rabbit holes that Meek’s thickly textured language led me down ... The sheer brio with which Meek introduces yet another literary convention, stock character, or unlikely scenario into his still-somehow-realistic story is thrilling.
As with a play, the novel unfolds with the stately, mannered, self-conscious air of a troupe of travelling players treading the boards, each delivering lines in a different accent, their voices creating a chorus from another age ... Meek has written about the past before...but this is something new. Using a language of his own making, bolted together from archaisms, and embellished by imagination, he attempts to enter the mouths and minds of people so far distant from us the gulf feels too wide to bridge. With some characters he is more successful than others. The noblewoman Berna and her kind speak in such a stilted, artificial way it defies suspension of disbelief. ... Yet despite its many flaws, there is a mesmerising quality to the way in which the more lowly characters talk, and reflect, that turns To Calais, In Ordinary Time from a worthy attempt at historical imagination into something altogether more inventive and risky ... It will not be to all tastes but for those who surrender themselves to the flow, it gradually exerts an almost magnetic pull.