Praise be to Cuddy, whoever he may really be…
Author Benjamin Myers is no stranger to crafting dizzyingly experimental novels; in the past few years, he’s crafted The Perfect Golden Circle (about friends connecting through creating crop circle formations), The Gallows Pole (about the true story of Northern coin forgers), and The Offing (a gentle bucolic tale about post-World War II healing) to name but a few.
His latest story, Cuddy, is intent on retelling the life of St Cuthbert, considered by many to be the patron saint of the north of England, a local son beloved and venerated for centuries, through a postmodern lens. This Cuddy appears only sporadically as a character; instead he appears primarily through the lens of other people through those same centuries, taking new kaleidoscopic form with each new experimental section.
The novel skips around various viewpoints and voices, using a dizzying array of Myers’ narrative tricks to express the impact of St Cuthbert – whether it’s the ingenious use of literal quotes from existing books to create a narrative on the page, as is used in several sections of the novel, or it’s the usage of prose and verse alike from one page to the next, creating an epigrammatic delight to read. This is a novel about the concept of legacy through the lens of sainthood and the lasting impact that legacy can have upon individual and collective story.
Myers even has fun with exactly what kind of novel he wants this to be: in one section it’s a grim, grimy historical novel following a woman’s connections to St Cuddy amidst her abusive marriage, while in another it’s a literary exploration of gender and faith as it follows the sole woman in the original pilgrimage with Cuddy’s relics as she attempts to survive both the other party members and the perilous journey to Cuddy’s resting spot. Best of all might be the Victorian-set section of the book, which follows a naïve, blindered, quietly arrogant academic who stumbles into darkness, evoking the kind of bone-chilling terror of one of MR James’ more terrifying tales.
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The novel culminates in a modern-day story in which teenage labour worker Michael explores Cuddy’s cathedral as it undergoes renovations, forcing him to come to terms with his young mother’s looming passing through the lens of finding sanctuary within the cathedral’s walls. Is Michael a reincarnation of Cuddy? A descendant? An avatar of his consciousness? Myers is sure never to say one way or another, instead completing the process that alchemises Cuddy from local lad into beneficent being, evolving past the trappings of religion and ritual into the totem of everyday compassion that Myers seems intent on presenting to us.
Occasionally too overcomplex and unwieldy for some readers who may have expected a more straightforward historical revisiting of the life of the saint, Cuddy offers the reader a unique perspective on the life of one of England’s most revered saints. The literal tale of a local boy done good, reshaped and re-evaluated through the perspective of lives around him after his death, in Myers’ capable hands, St Cuthbert takes on even more significance than the deeds mentioned, the shrines built, or bones stolen from his crypt. He becomes even more remarkable in spite of his humanity and even more divine because of it. Praise be indeed.
Cuddy is out on 16th March from Bloomsbury Circus.