Karen Maitland’s medieval Company of Liars (Delacorte Press, 2008), which I read last month, is a welcome addition to my short list of historical novels on epidemics. I found the book haunting, thought-provoking, and hard to put down.
In the summer of 1348, when the plague first arrives in England from abroad, strangers thrown together by happenstance hit the road to escape infection. Like us in early 2020, they can only guess how far or how fast the contagion might spread. They meet locked doors and gates where they might have found welcome in healthier times. As they flee, they entertain each other with misleading stories of their lives. Which will catch up with them first, the pestilence or their lies?
The plague journey intrigues me because I think of epidemics as fixing people in place. The fictional storytellers in Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349-1353) hunker down in a villa outside Florence to avoid the plague. Residents of the infected village in Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders, set in 1666, agree to stay put so as not to infect others. Some of us during Covid are in quarantine or under lockdown orders.
Do shutdowns have a contrary effect of setting some people in motion? If so, I wonder who today’s pandemic travelers would be. Families roaming and sleeping in their vans? Students removed from closed dorms? Overflow from homeless shelters limited by social distancing? Is it possible to wall some in for safety without walling others out?
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.