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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Hurdy Gurdy

Christopher Wilson

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To purchase Hurdy Gurdy

Title: Hurdy Gurdy
Author: Christopher Wilson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 247 pages
Availability: Hurdy Gurdy - US
Hurdy Gurdy - UK
Hurdy Gurdy - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good and thoughtful comic fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 28/1/2021 Boyd Tonkin
The Guardian . 5/2/2021 Christopher Shrimpton
The Spectator . 6/2/2021 Anthony Cummins
Sunday Times . 15/1/2021 Nick Rennison
The Telegraph . 24/1/2021 Jake Kerridge
Times . 14/1/2021 Robbie Millen

  Review Consensus:

  Good fun

  From the Reviews:
  • "Both research psychologist and novelist, Wilson in his fiction celebrates young outsiders with eccentric gifts that may prove both a blessing and a curse. (...) Much of his pungent humour stems from skewed perspectives and maverick viewpoints. (...) If our bumptious young healer-monk grabs the last word, Wilson himself has the last laugh. Even in pandemic times, he hints, comedy is the superpower to purge one-eyed, self-deluding humankind." - Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

  • "Hurdy Gurdy bubbles with a convivial, earthy humour and Brother Diggory is an amusing antihero. The prose is highly evocative, full of flesh and blood (.....) This is an entertaining and atmospheric picaresque -- though in the midst of our own pandemic, Wilson's satire of misguided churchmen and unscientific plague doctors feels somewhat quaint: our own leaders appear far more monstrous. Still, it is often ingenious and frequently hilarious." - Christopher Shrimpton, The Guardian

  • "(A) scatological comedy of errors (.....) The effect is a little like Chaucer as told by Adrian Mole. Much of the humour resembles the amputation scene in Madame Bovary, in which the stable boy with a clubfoot gets his leg clumsily sawn off after bungled advice by puffed-up professionals. (...) This boisterous, bubo-busting muckfest would probably have felt more of an oddity were it not for the timeliness conferred by -- well, don't make me type it." - Anthony Cummins, The Spectator

  • "I thought that the last thing I was in the mood for was a book about a plague sweeping through Britain. But Christopher Wilson's 10th novel, set against the backdrop of a medieval pestilence, is salutary: not only does it serve as a reminder that we've prevailed over this sort of thing before, it's also genuinely and therapeutically funny. (...) (T)he book is authentically medieval -- or at least Chaucerian -- in its indiscriminate and infectious delight in all aspects of human nature -- innocence and bawdry, goodness and wickedness." - Jake Kerridge, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Set in rural England between 1349 and 1352, Hurdy Gurdy is a Bildungsroman of the plague years. The narrator was born Jack Fox, but as a child he was sent to become a novice at a nearby monastery, the Order of Odo, where he could receive something of an education. He was baptised Brother Diggory, and was taken under the wing by Brother Fulco; despite the small size of the order -- all of thirty-nine brothers, in a single monastery in Whye -- it did indeed offer the boy a good (for the times) education. Apparently quick on the uptake, Diggory took full advantage, and by the time he is sixteen, when the story begins, he had learnt: "to speak French like a noble, to write the Latin like a scholar, to speak the Rhetoric like a lawyer, to work the numbers like a merchant, to use the herbs like an apothecary", among much else.
       For all his learning -- and it's quite a bit, in these times when there was still very little formal schooling --, Diggory has also lived a very sheltered and limited life. A lack of familiarity and understanding of women and sex (things he is finding himself more curious about) isn't that surprising in the all-male surroundings he is raised in, but he isn't very worldly in other ways either; young Diggory is an educated (for the times) but very naïve protagonist -- which Wilson of course plays to the hilt. Soon enough, young Diggory is flung from his protected environment and familiar routine into a whole new world -- the world at large, which itself is increasingly disordered by the Black Plague that is sweeping through.
       Diggory knew from Fulco what was coming:

     There was a sickness wandering the face of the Earth. A foul pestilence. A great distemper. An awful pox.
       Since the order is also devoted to healing and the monastery also has: "a sick-house for the treatment of all ailments, of the body, the mind and the spirit", it's clear that once the plague reaches this area the monks will be sorely tested. Like the others, Diggory accepts this: it's their duty, and it is what they are meant to do. Even much later, facing death again, Diggory is not so much resigned as agreeably accepting: "the secret is to die well. Confessed. Penitent. Absolved. Embracing the bigger, better, eternal life to come". But, as the deadly plague approaches, he does have some regrets -- notably, how little he has experienced at his tender age. As he realizes, facing mortality, there seems to be something to be said for having experienced more in life; indeed, he concludes: "it must be better to sin and live to regret it, than never to sin at all". He's quite disappointed that, so far, opportunity has passed him by -- and with the plague bearing down on them, it doesn't look like he'll have much of a chance in what looks like it won't be much of a future .....
       As it turns out, the plague sets him free. He succumbs early on, and is close to death, but he survives -- unlike the rest of his order. When he staggers out of his cell, there's nary a soul left, just thirty-two bodies (with the six others missing). Diggory decides the wisest course is to abandon the monastery for the time being -- "The place must be cleansed by abandonment and time" -- and he begins his wanderings.
       Diggory is not well-equipped to face the world at large, but he's certainly game. He's curious, and he's philosophical -- taking things as they come. He is rather naïve, especially when it comes to dealing with others -- in contrast to, for example, a Simon Mostly, whose path he'll repeatedly cross -- but he catches on, at least in some regards, quickly, and makes his way. Among other things, he quickly learns about women, and sex -- and it's a lesson he takes to very enthusiastically.
       What Diggory does not find is much stability. It's hardly surprising, in these unsettled circumstances, but Diggory's situation seems almost extreme, even considering these. Because, as he can't help but observe, despite not having the pox himself: "it does always follow me, close behind, wherever I go ...".
       The fourteenth-century youth has considerable book-learning -- including much of the most up-to-date medical knowledge -- but all this is very much of its time. Wilson has good fun with this, presenting what passed for leading scientific knowledge at the time -- much of it, unsurprisingly, hair-raising when considered from a modern perspective, but plausible enough at the time. Diggory is intelligent, and does consider the evidence around him in coming to his conclusions; regarding the mysterious illness, there's simply too little to sensibly go on -- it would seem. In fact, readers will have long glommed onto why so many that Diggory encounters soon later find themselves suffering from the plague. As one woman who teaches him well in other ways suggests (too late to make much of a difference regarding her own fate);
     'Perhaps,' she said, 'you should address the fleas. It seems the fleas know more than you.'
       Hurdy Gurdy is a Bildungsroman. Diggory grows from boy to man -- notably also physically, in the course of just the two years he is away from the monastery; the few surviving brothers who have returned barely recognize him when he comes back. He is experienced -- perhaps in more ways than he would have liked -- but also knows that his future path lies outside the confines of the monastery, and he makes a life for himself beyond it (but still nearby), utilizing what he has learnt.
       The world changed in those plague years:
     The old order is lost. Custom is torn apart. So many are dead. Everyone's lost someone close. We are all mourning now.
       For all this darkness that he's seen and experienced, Diggory remains cheerful throughout. His come-what-may fatalism isn't of the resigned sort, but reflects both the times he lived in -- when death might visit at any moment -- and his education, which drilled into him a sense of a larger order which he can do little to affect. Although Diggory suffers a great deal of what can be considered tragedy along the way, his account almost always remains upbeat; certainly, he is able to leave tragedy and some of the outrageous things he is confronted with behind him quite well. Despite the rather dark subject-matter, Hurdy Gurdy is very much a comic novel, and Wilson shows a deft touch in how he handles all the misery of those times in his story. The humor is occasionally found in the shock of some of what happens -- Wilson does not shy away from describing quite a variety of excesses -- but mostly it -- and the overarching feel of the story -- is of a gentler sort; it is certainly funny.
       An enjoyable touch, too, is that Diggory recounts some of the wisdom of the founder of the order, as Saint Odo the Ugly was quite the remarkable character, too. Specifically, Diggory recounts bits from one of Odo's great works, The Great Unhappened: Being a Record of the Yet Undone, which describes -- in terms appropriate to the times -- inventions and technological advances from our times, an amusing -- particularly in how things are described -- glimpse of our present in the distant past.
       It's perhaps difficult to imagine a plague-tale being enjoyable, but Wilson manages the balancing act between the horrors of the times and life nevertheless going on very well. Diggory's world is one in which there is little point in wallowing in ubiquitous tragedy and loss; Wilson allows for some melancholy and moments of, essentially, horror, but philosophical Diggory's fundamentally cheerful attitude easily leads the reader through what otherwise would surely be the overwhelmingly painful.
       As in all his work, Wilson's command of language again impresses: Diggory's account is consistently well-expressed, language used cleverly and carefully -- with Wilson careful not to let himself and the narrative get carried away by it, either. It all makes for a convivial read -- very entertaining, and never trying to hammer home any message or point too hard -- and the character-portrait of Diggory is ultimately a rich one, presenting both his personal growth and his deep-seated beliefs well. For all its lightness, too, Hurdy Gurdy is not just simple entertainment either.
       Good fun, and a very enjoyable read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 March 2021

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Hurdy Gurdy: Reviews: Chris(topher) Wilson: Other books by Christopher Wilson under Review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Christopher Wilson was born 18 November 1949 in London. He received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. He has worked as a research psychologist and was lecturer at Goldsmiths' College, University of London. He is the author of a number of novels, including Baa, Fou, and Gallimauf's Gospel.

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© 2021 the complete review

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